Inside the Fight Tearing TERFs Apart

Inside the Fight Tearing TERFs Apart

Last October, I received a surprising email, with the subject line “Women’s Liberation Front.”

The email read, “Hello – There are a number of women who are concerned about Women’s Liberation Front and its work as a right-wing organization pretending to be radical feminist. Is this something you are interested in?”

I was already familiar with, and had written about, the organization before that email landed in my inbox. The Women’s Liberation Front, or WoLF, is a small group of trans-exclusionary radical feminists in the U.S. who lately have become known for partnering with the religious right in their obsessive quest to fight the expansion of trans rights. Their latest efforts have centered on the passage of a fleet of incredibly cruel bills that would criminalize gender-affirming care for young people, as well as opposition to Aimee Stephens’s Supreme Court case—which Stephens, a woman who had alleged her employer fired her for being trans, recently won. WoLF claims the group’s work is in the service of protecting women and girls, a talking point that the right has borrowed in what has become a joint project of making the lives of trans people as mean and as circumscribed as possible.

The text of the email wasn’t what surprised me. It was the person who wrote it—Cathy Brennan, the woman once described by a journalist as the “chief TERF figurehead.” In the last decade, Brennan did more to push a noxious brand of anti-trans feminism on the internet than any other person in the country. In the early 2010s, she created a whole ecosystem of websites and social media accounts to push the dehumanizing belief that trans women were men, and warned darkly, and contrary to all evidence, that laws meant to protect trans people would allow rapists into places like bathrooms and locker rooms. One activist told Bitch in 2016 that “Cathy Brennan’s name alone strikes fear in trans people.”

For years, I have been curious about Brennan. It’s a sort of ugly fascination, and born out of repugnance for a person who seemingly felt no qualms using her platform to spew and direct hatred towards trans women, a group already incredibly vulnerable to violence. It was clear, during our conversations, that Brennan hasn’t changed much. She still clings to her core, bigoted beliefs. But the idea that she was beginning to divorce herself from the movement that she had played a significant role in creating felt like an intriguing opening, one that could possibly, eventually, lead to some sort of real reckoning, like a men’s rights activist who has belatedly seen the light, or a cult member who’s finally been able to escape. Once I received her initial email, Brennan became a nut that I was desperate to crack, even as it seemed unlikely that I would find the outcome very satisfying. This is not, after all, a redemption story.

If the ideological lineage of trans-exclusionary radical feminists stretches back to the radical feminist movement of the 1960s and ’70s, in particular a strain of lesbian separatism that took root during the movement’s later years, then it was Brennan, a lawyer and lesbian activist, who updated the TERF playbook for a digital age. During the early 2010s, Brennan became notorious—and widely criticized—for trolling her critics with messages like “sorry about your dick” and specifically targeting the trans women who pushed back against her rhetoric by contacting their schools, families, and employers. If Brennan didn’t exactly doxx people, she came close, posting people’s names (and often their deadnames) and other identifying details on her numerous websites, from Gender Identity Watch to Name the Problem to Pretendbians.

Gender Identity Watch, more than any of Brennan’s other sites, became a particularly toxic space. Along with a crew of volunteer contributors, Brennan filled Gender Identity Watch with mugshots of people who had been arrested and alarmist profiles of people Brennan and the other website administrators considered ripe for scrutiny—often for little more reason than the fact that they were trans, had mocked Brennan and TERFs online, or both. One didn’t have to be well-known to be targeted by Brennan, and even teenagers were fair game. (One woman whose Facebook page I reviewed said she was in high school when Gender Identity Watch wrote about her; as she shared in a recent Facebook post, “Brennan literally wrote a hate article targeting me when I was just a teenager. It was published Christmas Day. She spent Christmas attacking a teenage girl in Canada.”) This style of seemingly indiscriminate harassment led Gender Identity Watch to be called “the most feared blog on the internet by transgender women all over the world,” and in 2014, thousands petitioned the Southern Poverty Law Center to monitor the website as a hate group.

Brennan became notorious—and widely criticized—for trolling her critics with messages like “sorry about your dick” and specifically targeting the trans women who pushed back against her rhetoric by contacting their schools, families, and employers.

Given Brennan’s views and activism, it comes as no shock that she was once friendly with WoLF and its founders. Brennan says she first met Lierre Keith, a WoLF founder as well as a leader of the radical environmental (and transphobic) group Deep Green Resistance, in 2013 at the RadFems conference in London. Like many similar gatherings of radical feminists, the conference, at which they both spoke, excluded trans women and was vocally protested by trans activists. A year later, when Keith and others officially launched WoLF, Brennan offered to do “threat research” for the new group. According to Brennan, she was asked to be on the board, but she declined. And in 2018, she turned over the reins of Gender Identity Watch to WoLF, whose board members wrote that the group would maintain the website as a “community resource and historical record” and as a “place to document ongoing developments in female legal erasure, and the abuses of the male-centered gender identity movement.”

“We appreciate the many years of effort Cathy undertook to warn women of what was coming as gender identity doctrine gathered the force of law,” they added, “though this has been neither safe nor popular.” In a note that Brennan attached to WoLF’s statement about the handover, it’s obvious how aligned WoLF’s and Brennan’s thinking was at the time:

In 2012, I started Gender Identity Watch because it was abundantly clear that transgenderism was a tsunami devastating the rights of women and girls, and it would be important to understand how that wave grew. Additionally, very few of us were publicly objecting to transgenderism. So, we captured as much as we could, drop by drop, using all volunteer labor.

Brennan added, “I am grateful to hand the blog off to trustworthy stewards.”

But in 2019, her friendly relationship with WoLF began to fray, a break chronicled on her now-deactivated personal Facebook page and in videos that she posted to YouTube. After she emailed me, I responded to Brennan, curious to hear from the internet’s most notorious TERF why she was so opposed to a group whose thinking and end goals are, for all intents and purposes, seemingly identical to her own.

“I’m not interested in the conversations they’re having,” she insisted to me when we spoke. “I’m not interested in the cultural moment that they’re trying to make happen. I’m not.”

Brennan said she continues to believe that what she calls “transgenderism” is a “tsunami devastating the rights of women and girls,” and that it “hurts women.” She continues to state publicly that she believes trans women are men and that, as she put it to me, being trans is merely a “feeling,” one that she likened to “any other fundamentalist religion.”

But Brennan vehemently disagrees, however laughable one may find her statement, that she and WoLF are anything alike. When we spoke on the phone, she pointed to WoLF’s “concerted effort” to “destroy” the Violence Against Women Act, as well as the group’s complete opposition to the Equality Act as points of difference. In her mind, their goal is to “destroy significant advances that women have made over the last 30 years.” She’s not exactly wrong. Since the group’s founding, WoLF has waded deeply in the muck of the right-wing ecosystem, its leaders eagerly appearing on Fox News and working closely with the Heritage Foundation, the Family Policy Alliance, the Alliance Defending Freedom, as well as anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ Republicans, all in the name of limiting the rights of trans people. It’s WoLF’s close alliance with the Christian right, Brennan told me, that most alarms her.

“They’ve decided, instead of actually holding on to the feminist center, to just throw their lot in with rightwing organizations that don’t see any difference between gay people and trans people,” she said. Brennan referenced WoLF member Julia Beck’s testimony in 2019 against the Equality Act as one example. “Julia Beck sat in that hearing testifying that there’s no such thing as transphobia and there’s no such thing as discrimination based on transgender status, while there were transgender people on the panel [who] testified that they had been fired because they’re trans,” Brennan said. “That’s like next-level gaslighting.”

She was particularly upset, she told me, to “see lesbians who are so incensed about the trans issue that they’re willing to just abandon every other thing that they used to care about.” On the day that Aimee Stephens successfully argued her employment discrimination case before the Supreme Court, Brennan was there to protest both WoLF and the rightwing “fundies,” as she put it, that had organized opposition to Stephens’s case. Her concern was less about Stephens’s civil rights and more about how an adverse ruling could potentially affect gays and lesbians. I’ve never seen lesbians standing with the Concerned Women for America opposing case law developments that are favorable to lesbians. It was a mind fuck,” she told me.

When I reached out to WoLF to comment on their relationship with Brennan, the group’s board chair Natasha Chart attributed the breakdown in their working relationship to “troubling interactions” WoLF members had with Brennan. “From my individual perspective, she seemed to turn from a casual, mostly online, friend of some years, to my bitter enemy in the space of about a day, because I wouldn’t make other women do what she wanted,” Chart emailed me, adding, “I can’t take the aftermath seriously as a disagreement on principle.”

Brennan’s public criticism of her former allies and her distancing from the so-called “gender-critical” movement has not gone unnoticed. (Gender-critical is often the descriptor preferred by TERFs rather than, well, TERF.) As Brennan herself put it in a video from January 2019, “I don’t count myself as a gender-critical feminist, I count myself as a lesbian feminist.” In that same video, she criticized WoLF’s lack of empathy, and pointed to WoLF members carrying transphobic signs in Pride parades, which she likened to “right-wingers showing up with signs that say God hates faggots,” as an example.

“What’s going on with her recently?” a Reddit user wrote of Brennan in the summer of 2019, noting her seeming shift.

Brennan describes herself as a longtime gay rights activist who has worked to pass gay marriage legislation and anti-discrimination laws. In 2001, when she was on the board of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Baltimore, she was appointed to the city of Baltimore’s then-newly created Gay and Lesbian Task Force. By then, trans activists in the state were already familiar with—and critical of—Brennan, largely for her role in pushing for a statewide anti-discrimination bill that deliberately excluded trans people from its protections, a move that would be echoed on the federal level in 2007 with the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. (Years later, the trans historian Kat Rose described Brennan’s role in the 2001 bill: “Again, gays who wanted their gay-only bill without concern for the long-term harm to trans people—the most vocally obnoxious of whom was Cathy Brennan—pushed the theory that trans people were already covered under Maryland law so trans people had nothing to complain about.”)

A decade later, in the spring of 2011, a Maryland bill that would have protected trans people from housing- and job-related discrimination, but notably failed to include public spaces like bathrooms in its protections, failed. While Brennan supported that legislation, many trans critics of the bill pointed to its flaws as yet another sign that prominent gay and lesbian activists and organizations were perfectly willing to negotiate away the rights of trans people.

What they were arguing for amounted to a gutting of legal safeguards meant to protect trans people, and in particular trans women, based on little more than fear-mongering.

It could have remained all classic Gay Inc. infighting, and just another example of gay and lesbian activists throwing trans people under the bus—but Brennan’s activism soon pivoted towards a more explicit targeting of trans women and onto the internet. Shortly after the 2011 Maryland bill died, Brennan and Elizabeth Hungerford, another anti-trans attorney and lesbian activist, co-authored a widely read and criticized letter to the United Nations sharing why they believed that gender-inclusive legal protections (read: legislation protecting trans people) would harm women.

“[T]he proliferation of legislation designed to protect ‘gender identity’ and ‘gender expression’ undermines legal protections for females vis-à-vis sex segregated spaces, such as female-only clubs, public restrooms, public showers, and other spaces designated as ‘female only,’” they wrote. “As lesbians, we are concerned about the impact of this legislation on our community, and our community’s ability to meet free from male influence. More importantly, as females, we are concerned that in the attempt to provide protections for a few, we will compromise the protections of the many.”

This sort of legal argument, which claimed that protections for trans people would lead to the erosion of women’s spaces, was a precursor to the kinds of justification that groups like WoLF, the Heritage Foundation, and the Alliance Defending Freedom now parrot and spread in their work as a gloss for their transphobia. Take WoLF’s 2019 amicus brief in Aimee Stephens’s Supreme Court case, which echoes much of Brennan and Hungerford’s language: “The entire concept of ‘gender identity’ is a dangerous one, especially in the context of civil rights laws designed to prevent sex-based discrimination against women and girls.”

While Brennan and Hungerford insisted that they “do not believe that transgender women are any more likely to harm females” and that they “recognize the legitimate needs of transgender women to operate in the world free from irrational discrimination,” what they were arguing for, cloaked in so much careful, ostensibly feminist language, amounted to a gutting of legal safeguards meant to protect trans people, and in particular trans women, based on little more than fear-mongering. As one critic succinctly put it at the time, “It’s ‘bathroom bill’ rhetoric dressed up to look like feminism.”

That letter, and the fierce blowback she received, seemed to kickstart the next phase of Brennan’s activism—largely online, and driven by what I would describe as an obsessive drive to become the internet’s foremost TERF troll. No one sets up several different websites and numerous social media accounts, as Brennan did, unless one wants to start some shit.

And Brennan became known for targeting anyone who criticized her online (including the news outlets who wrote critically of her, which she would often threaten to sue for defamation, threats she followed through with at times). In one highly publicized instance from 2013, Brennan contacted the doctor of Emily Horsman, a Canadian trans woman who had set up a Cathy Brennan parody account on Twitter under the handle @terfprincess and had been arguing with her online, which Brennan interpreted as harassment. “I believe [Horsman’s doctor] has a professional obligation to know about his patient’s mental health,” Brennan wrote in her letter, published on Gender Identity Watch, in which she repeatedly misgendered Horsman. (The clinic, for its part, wrote in a response that “the transphobia is pretty intense in the email,” and that “this could be an example of some disturbing public transphobia that has been going on of late.”) And in another widely discussed incident, Brennan contacted the school of a teenager from the UK after they allegedly harassed her on Twitter. (Brennan claimed the student was “disturbed” and “made numerous disturbing comments about women and rape on Tumblr,” which was widely written about at the time, but can’t be independently verified by Jezebel as both Brennan and the student in question have taken down the majority of the posts that document their interactions.)

At one point in our conversations, I asked Brennan if she regretted her hostile reactions to critics like Horsman. “Absolutely not,” she replied. She added, “Each of these people is extremely abusive, and each of them deserved what they got from me. I’m a live and let live person but if you come for me, expect to feel bad about it.”

If there are transphobic radical feminists who have belatedly renounced their views, Brennan isn’t one of them. Brennan’s self-proclaimed activism came at a time when trans people were under sustained attack. Increasing trans organizing and cultural visibility had spurred a rightwing backlash, led by Christian conservatives who seized upon legislation like bathroom bills to stir up a new panic around trans people, and in particular trans women. Having largely lost the political and cultural battle against gay marriage, religious conservatives united around the belief that fighting the expansion of trans rights was the next frontier for their anti-LGBT, “family values” activism. And they quickly embraced TERF talking points like those pushed by Brennan, seeing a pragmatic alliance with so-called radical feminists as a strategic one that would give their bigotry a feminist sheen.

Yet when I asked her if she saw any similarities between her activism and the work of groups like WoLF, she said no. “I think those folks have a right-wing, Christianist ideological framework. I do not,” she said, then listed out what she perceived were differences between her views and those of WoLF—chiefly what she described as WoLF’s opposition to civil rights protections “for gays, lesbians, and GNC people,” and notably leaving out any mention of trans people and trans rights. “I hope they fail miserably,” she said of WoLF. “I hope they’re exposed as the miserable anti-gay, anti-woman organization they are.”

For all of her decrying of WoLF’s work with right-wing groups, she freely admitted to me that she had once reached out to the notoriously homophobic Alliance Defending Freedom about working with them on a Title IX case. In the past, she had had no issues with parroting the claim made by the Pacific Justice Institute, another anti-LGBT legal group designated by the SPLC as a hate group, that a trans high schooler had harassed other students; the student had, in fact, merely been using the girls’ locker room, which some parents of students had objected to. (Brennan had posted the young girl’s name on Gender Identity Watch, potentially opening up the teenager to online abuse.) Less serious but no less telling, Brennan told me that she found a harmless meme widely circulated online in 2016 by her detractors that stated “Cathy Brennan is a fake goth” “hilarious” and “entertaining,” yet she acknowledged that she and a group of her friends had at the time reported “hundreds” of Facebook accounts that posted the meme for “harassment.”

But perhaps the most striking paradox in her thinking is her belief, which she has held on to for at least two decades now despite all evidence to the contrary, that she is some sort of friend to trans people. “To me, it evinces a deep lack of compassion, which is actually another thing I care about, for all the stories about like I’m a big evil person,” Brennan told me of WoLF’s work. She added, “Because I don’t have to think a trans woman is a woman for me to not think that person shouldn’t be allowed to work. Like I don’t have to fully buy all of your views in order to agree on basic principles.”

It takes an incredible amount of hubris and contorted logic to have spent the last decade attacking trans people and then to claim that you support the very same people with whom you continue to disagree on the most fundamental aspects of their humanity. For Brennan to be able to state that earnestly displays, to me, an inability or unwillingness to grapple with her leading role for years in fostering an online climate targeting and dehumanizing trans people. It’s a climate that cannot be divorced from the alarmingly high levels of violence against trans people, particularly Black trans women and trans Latinas, or from the increasing numbers of anti-trans bills being pushed by Republican-led state legislatures around the country, bills that she told me she was alarmed by, even as their justification relies on some of the very same beliefs she continues to hold dear.

Recently, I called her up one last time, to ask her a question that I believed I already knew the answer to: Does she regret anything? I had begun to think of her distancing from groups like WoLF and so-called “gender critical feminists” as nothing more than damage control, as if the fire she played no small role in stoking has now, to her alarm, spiraled out of her control.

But Brennan herself doesn’t see it that way. “I do not regret playing any role in fomenting conversations around this issue, because we needed to have the conversation,” she told me. “If someone felt bad that I didn’t think they were a woman, and is holding on to that, I would just say to them, ‘Why the fuck would you care what I think of you?’”

During one of our conversations, though, she did strike one note that I couldn’t disagree with, and which brought us back to the very reason why I wanted to talk to her to begin with. Perhaps it was the only thing worth knowing about Brennan.

“If you don’t agree on this whole thing, you’re a TERF,” she said. “So yeah, I’m a TERF I guess, whatever that means.”

Update (7/9/20): Cathy Brennan emailed Jezebel to let us know that she does in fact have a working Facebook account.

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