The morning of my birthday, April 5th, began as always. I recognized waking reality, assessed the relative pain in my back and neck, stretched, and paused to stare blankly out the window for a moment or two before fumbling for my glasses and, per my ritual, reaching to the coffee table by my bed for my laptop to check my e-mail, facebook, twitter, and the blog’s moderation queue. That morning’s twitter, though, was not like most morning twitters.
That morning, I was greeted by tweets from Cathy Brennan.
Brennan, in case the name isn’t met by you with immediate, horrified recognition and a shiver down your spine (as thunder claps and the horses whinny), is one of the most vocal, adamant and bitter of the transphobic wing of radical feminism. She has effectively devoted the entirety of her “career” to her obsessive hatred of us and her inability to reconcile her worldview with the fact that we exist and are, well… human. One of the most odious of her actions, and the one that most succinctly sums up what she’s all about, was co-spearheading an initiative to lobby the UN for removing gender identity and gender expression from their 2011 LGBTQ human rights declaration.
She failed. I hope that stings her.
Anyway, despite attempting to lay low and avoid blipping on their radar for as long I possibly could, I eventually came to the attention of Brennan and her acolytes after deciding to weigh in on the “Cotton Ceiling” debate (a controversy surrounding trans women’s efforts to challenge the perception of us within queer womens’ communities as, despite nominal acceptance, being inherently undesirable, unattractive, unfuckable and, sexually speaking, men. As in somehow sleeping with a trans woman suddenly invalidates one’s status as lesbian. Ugh. I suppose that makes all the hordes of men who are into “shemale” porn gay? They can join in your big gay parties now? At least be logically consistent). And so a few days later, April 5th, she decided to confront me directly.
The nature of Cathy’s attack was to go after my identification as atheist. According to Cathy, who rather pretentiously self-identifies as a “gender atheist”, it was ideologically impossible for me to be atheist at the same time as believing in the validity of a gender identity that’s independent of outward biology or socialization. She linked this rather silly, misinformed and ignorant article (which leads with the laughable claim that “we have no more evidence for gender identity than we do for God”…actually, we have PLENTY of evidence for gender identity, and it’s growing all the time), and made some weird pithy remarks like “sex is science, gender is fashion” that I suppose ring profound within her mind (a place I don’t wish to conceive). Apparently, to Brennan, ignorant, misinformed and ludicrously biased as she is, there is no POSSIBLE explanation for the existence of a non-genitally-or-socially-determined gender identity other than metaphysical claims.
I can’t even imagine what it must be like to be that unimaginative.
While it’s true that many people, trans or otherwise, look to metaphysical explanations for gender variance, this has little bearing on the actual merit of gender identity as a concept. For instance, many people imagine a situation of a literally misembodied soul. But more often than not, as I’ve explained a few times, such concepts are extended only as simplified metaphors for helping cis people understand what transgenderism is and feels like, NOT intended to be accurate or conclusive descriptions of our actual positions, or intended to be taken as such. And really, that’s what metaphysical or mythical concepts function best as: metaphors and simplifications for complex concepts.
In terms of trans people who do themselves adhere to such metaphysical explanations, it’s not at all difficult to simply regard this as more or less the same kind of thing as an atheist trans person offering the “trapped in the wrong body” metaphor to a cis person in order to help them grasp the basics, just as a self-reflexive version of that. When initially confronting a dissonance between gender identity and morphological and/or assigned sex, NO ONE is going to already have a full, detailed, complex, nuanced grasp on the issues. We don’t magically inherit the entirety of the trans-feminist discourse and all its attendant concepts and terminologies immediately upon voicing ourselves as trans (which is part of why I find it so exasperating when cis people say it’s too complicated for them to grasp: we learned to grasp it, so can you). During those initial stages of trying to figure out what the hell it is we’re experiencing, we don’t have a very sophisticated toolbox, so we articulate those concepts (within and to ourselves) however we can, with whatever tools we do have available. If the only tools we have on hand that can really speak to this are ideas of souls, spirits, energies, auras and reincarnations, that’s what we’re going to use to assemble some understanding of ourselves which we can build upon later.
Some of us don’t quite get around to building those conceptions into something more sophisticated and scientifically sound, but that’s okay. It doesn’t suddenly mean our experience of gender is invalid or wrong or not “real”, only that we’ve adopted somewhat clunky means of articulating it. This is a process that is old as human beings themselves. Before we had sophisticated, scientific concepts to explain the sun, the stars, the moon, the orbits of the Earth and planets and so on, we relied on myths of Apollo, Diana, the firmament, the heavens and a punctured black curtain. Gradually, over time, we built upon this understanding and arrived at a scientific and more accurate understanding of what was going on (astronomy and astrophysics). Gender identity is no different.
Saying that because some trans people lean upon metaphysical explanations for their identities, or one’s own inability to comprehend explanations beyond metaphysics, somehow justifies saying you don’t believe in the existence of gender identity is like saying the fact that some people still believe in the Biblical genesis, and that you don’t have a full grasp of astronomy, justifies you saying you don’t believe in the sun.
(you’re not the only one who can reference Stephin Merritt lyrics, Cathy. And I’m much more clever about it.)
Trans people, our lived experiences, our brains, our gender identities… they’re facts. We’re here. We’re not going away. They’re facts as certain as the sun itself. What explanations exist or do not yet exist for gender identity has no bearing on its existence. Its existence is a given. I, at the very least, know it’s there, with exactly as much certainty as knowing I exist at all.
Calling oneself a “gender atheist” is an insult to atheism. Atheism is predicated on refusing to believe in a concept for which no adequate evidence has yet been presented. It is NOT about stubbornly refusing to accept something that has been conclusively established as a fact (in this case, a fact of human experience and nature). It’s an insult to atheism in the same way that “climate skeptic” is an insult to skeptics. Anthropogenic climate change is a conclusively established fact. Therefore rejecting it is not skepticism, in the valid and “good science” sense of the word, it’s instead a demonstration of heavy bias, which is the very antithesis of skepticism.
By extension, stubbornly refusing to accept the existence of gender identity, despite the overwhelming evidence that it is an entirely legitimate aspect of human experience that even has fairly evident neurobiological foundations, is not by any means a valid, skeptical, rational approach to the question. It instead demonstrates heavy bias. The inability to accept a reality, instead clinging defiantly to an increasingly outdated, archaic, discredited theoretical construct that was only considered an adequate explanation for those real world phenomena when we hadn’t yet found any answers.
You know who else clings to outdated, archaic, discredited theoretical constructs, developed prior to conclusive scientific evidence, despite ever-increasing contradictory evidence, because they just plain can’t accept the uncomfortable implications of being wrong?
I don’t fear Cathy Brennan. She doesn’t even anger me anymore. I find her funny. The reason for that is because she no longer feels like much of a threat. She failed in her UN petition. In the short-term, yes, she has the capacity to hurt people, and cause real, actual damage to the lives of real trans people. And she won’t hesitate to cause that harm. She’s definitely a vicious, ruthless, dangerous monster of a person. But…
In the long-term, she’s losing. And in all her increasing venom, what I see is not a threat, but instead the sad, desperate awareness of that fact burgeoning within her. She’s losing, and bit by bit, she’s realizing it. Almost NOTHING is as dangerous as a cornered bigot when they know they’re losing. But the danger doesn’t last.
Some day, Cathy Brennan is going to be consigned to the dustbin of history, along with all the other hateful bigots who opposed the progress of human rights. Meanwhile, those of us who fought (perhaps especially in this crucial moment, here and now) on behalf of trans rights, on behalf of an inclusive feminism, on behalf of the rights and dignity and validity of all iterations of human identity, we’re going to be remembered with gratitude, respect and love. Every single new generation of gender variant people (and there will ALWAYS be new generations of us, because we are an irrepressible FACT of humanity) whose lives are rendered easier, gentler, richer and kinder by the actions we take here and now are going to remember us and what we did, and sacrificed, on their behalf.
Brennan? At best, if she’s remembered at all, it will be as that vicious, petty transphobe who tried and failed to stop the UN from advancing human rights.
We win slowly, and at the cost of a lot of pain, with lives lost along the way. But we win.