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What is a TERF? Unpacking Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminism

Several women cross their armsPhoto: Shutterstock

While many people have heard the term “TERF,” fewer folks may understand why the term has been applied to celebrities like author J.K. Rowling and comedian Dave Chappelle, or how the right has co-opted TERF ideology to oppose trans civil rights.

Right-wingers, Republicans, and anti-LGBTQ+ activists have all used TERF talking points to demonize queers as “child mutilators” and to deny trans people access to essential public accommodations, healthcare, and basic respect. As such, it’s very important than ever to understand TERFs and the flaws in their thinking.

What Does TERF Stand For?

TERF is an acronym for “trans exclusionary radical feminism.” It applies to individuals who don’t see transgender women as real women or transgender men as real men.

Viv Smythe, a cisgender radical feminist blogger was credited with coining the acronym in 2008 while writing about the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival’s refusal to admit trans women. Smythe said she didn’t actually invent the term and that it was intended as a neutral description for a minority of feminists who oppose trans women entering traditionally cisgender female spaces.

The Oxford English Dictionary added TERF as a noun in its June 2022 update, noting that the term is “now typically regarded as derogatory.” Indeed, some argue that the term has become a slur to silence, bully, and threaten violence against trans critics, particularly women and their allies.

However, linguists Christopher Davis and Elin McCready have argued that TERF doesn’t fit the second of their three-point criteria for slurs: They say slurs must 1) disrespect a particular group 2) based on an intrinsic, inborn property (like gender or race) 3) in order to lower them within a power structure. Since transphobic politics aren’t inborn, Davis and McCready argue that TERF isn’t really a slur.

How TERFs View Transgender People

Many TERFs prefer to be called “gender critical,” and some identify as “second-wave feminists” who see cis womanhood as an inborn “essentialist” identity determined by one’s biological sex, including the physical and psychological differences between cis women and cis men. Some TERFs claim that the rise of trans women has created tension within the lesbian segment of the LGBTQ+ community.

As such, TERFs don’t think that people can change their biological sex by medically transitioning from one gender to another. Some TERFs say that “male entitlement” and “arrogance” cause some people assigned a male gender at birth (AMAB) to think that they can “become” women just by adopting superficial “feminine” appearances and behaviors that are a “mockery,” “parody,” or “caricature” of womanhood.

Many TERFs say that cis women have long experienced systematic oppression by the cis male patriarchy in ways that trans women can’t relate to. Other TERFs see trans women as men who are unfairly trying to claim or “erase” cis women’s experiences and social spaces as their own, including bathrooms, sports teams, domestic abuse shelters, and other spaces meant to protect women from male oppression.

Some TERFs also claim that trans identity is a mental illness or a social fad that young people are being pressured to accept. TERFs additionally claim that trans activists and allies are forcing children into “dangerous” and “irreversible” medical care including bodily “mutilation” — though hormone therapy is safe and reversible, and gender-affirming surgeries aren’t conducted on children. Nevertheless, TERFs claim that many trans individuals regret transitioning and choose to “de-transition” later in life, though real-world data contradicts this claim.

Examples of TERF Controversies

JK Rowling, transgender inmates, New Jersey
Shutterstock JK Rowling in 2011

Maya Forstater’s case and its implications for transgender rights

Maya Forstater, a British researcher, was fired from her job at a think tank for publishing tweets criticizing U.K. government plans to allow people to self-identify their gender. In her tweets, Forstater described trans women as men and said that one cannot change their biological sex.

In 2019, an employment tribunal judge ruled that her views had caused a “hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment” at her work and weren’t considered protected beliefs under the U.K. Equality Act of 2010. The act forbids discrimination based on gender, sex, religion, or belief.

However, Forstater appealed, and, in 2021, an appeals tribunal found that her “gender critical” beliefs should be protected, though the tribunal said that such beliefs shouldn’t be expressed in a discriminatory way. Forstater has since been revered by TERFs as a truth-telling cis woman persecuted for her free speech.

Forstater has since claimed that trans children typically outgrow their “gender distress,” which is caused by “stirrings of same-sex attraction, undiagnosed autistic-spectrum disorder, trauma from sexual abuse and, for many teenage girls, living in a sexist, porn-saturated world.” Similar arguments have been used to justify the denial of trans children’s gender identities and their access to gender-affirming healthcare.

TERF rhetoric in the Harry Potter fandom and its impact on fans

In December 2019, J.K. Rowling, the cis female author of the massively popular Harry Potter children’s book series, published a tweet supporting Forstater. In 2020, Rowling wrote a long essay saying that while trans women are “vulnerable and “deserve protection,” cis female survivors of domestic abuse, like her, feel threatened by trans women in traditionally cis-female spaces. Rowling’s essay repeated baseless conspiracy theories about kids being coerced into transitioning and said that transphobic people shouldn’t be discriminated against for exercising their free speech.

Actors from the Harry Potter film adaptations denounced Rowling’s views, and fan sites began cutting their ties to the author. Many celebrities criticized Rowling, and others came out in support of Rowling’s transphobia, including comedian Dave Chappelle who declared that he’s “team TERF.” Rowling says she has been sent rape and death threats over her views but added that she’s too rich to care about her critics. Her views continue generating opposition to Harry Potter spinoffs, including a recent video game and proposed TV series.

Support for anti-trans legislation, such as bathroom bills, women’s sports, and the Equality Act

Anti-trans politicians and activists in the U.S. have since referenced Rowling and other TERF views when opposing the Equality Act, a federal law that would add sexual orientation and gender identity to pre-existing anti-discrimination laws. Similarly, transphobic forces have cited TERF ideology while opposing trans people’s access to bathrooms, sports teams, and medical care that affirm their gender identities.

The right wing has made minor celebrities of TERFs who misgender trans people and oppose trans civil rights. Rightwingers claim that anti-trans legislation seeks to “protect” girls, women, women’s sports, and female spaces from a leftist “gender confusion” (or mental illness) that seeks to “erase” women and deny them hard-won opportunities for social advancement.

Other TERFs have aligned with religious right figures who claim that trans people are “unnatural” because “God only created men and women” — but these claims ignore the existence of trans animals and trans-affirming Bible verses.

Trans activism and challenges to TERF Ideology

A person holding a sign at pride that says "No TERFs on our Astro"

Criticisms of TERFs’ arguments against transgender identities

While “gender essentialist” TERFs claim that people are born either male or female and that people cannot change their biological sex, this contradicts the American Medical Association (AMA)’s 2018 statement opposing any “efforts to deny an individual’s right to determine their stated gender identity.”

Trans advocates argue that one’s biological sex doesn’t always match their gender identity, as is the case for intersex individuals. Many human and animal biologists say that one’s sex traits are complex and fall along a gender spectrum between male and female rather than fully on one side of a gender binary.

Trans advocates also say that cis men have long discriminated against women on the basis of physical, chromosomal, genital, and other biological differences that aren’t always easy to discern through casual observation. As such, TERFs are participating in a similar form of oppressive sexism when they point to these differences to discriminate against trans women, trans advocates say.

Trans advocates point out that trans women aren’t just men who are “pretending” to be women through dress and appearance. Rather, trans women “consistently, persistently, and insistently” identify as female throughout their lives. Trans people have existed throughout history, and trans identity itself is not a mental illness, according to the World Health Organization and other major medical associations. Furthermore, studies show that most trans people are happy with their medical transition, and only about 3% ever de-transition.

Arguments for trans inclusion and against TERF beliefs

While many trans advocates agree that the lived experiences of cis women differ from those of trans women, they argue that many cis women’s experiences also differ from that of other cis women. Women’s gender identities and life experiences result, in part, from patriarchal preconceptions of how a woman is “supposed to” look and act.

Put another way, both cis and trans women have experienced sexist violence and oppression against their physical appearance and self-expression. Also, trans advocates point out that some trans women share biological similarities to cis women, including an inability to menstruate or become pregnant. Laws ensuring personal safety as well as access to public accommodations and healthcare shouldn’t be based on how their bodies operate.

Trans advocates also note that trans women have long been excluded, ridiculed, and demonized in media, politics, and the public, resulting in a rising tide of violence, hate speech, and transphobic legislation that harms their overall well-being. Trans-inclusive feminists say that similar hatred has been directed at cis women and that cis and trans women should unite to fight all forms of misogynist oppression, including legislation that dictates women’s bodily autonomy.

Importance of listening to transgender people and their experiences

Rather than continuing to center the experiences of TERFs and other cis women who say that their experiences justify excluding trans women from traditionally cis women’s spaces, trans advocates say that uplifting the unique experiences of trans women — especially poorer and non-white trans women — sheds greater light on the many intersectional ways that widespread misogyny and toxic masculinity marginalize women and men of all sorts.

Embracing inclusivity for a more equitable future

TERF beliefs aren’t just about the biological and societal differences that uniquely differentiate cis women from trans women. These beliefs are increasingly used to demonize and harass trans women as mentally ill individuals who threaten women’s safety and social standing.

The rise of anti-trans hate speech has resulted in transphobic legislation and violence. These threaten not only the well-being of trans women but also that of individuals who don’t meet traditional expectations of how different sexes and genders look and behave.

TERF slogans and ideology are seductive — especially because they’re simplistic and often claim to protect women and children. But TERFs are primarily transphobic and rarely speak out against the economic and societal inequalities that directly harm women and children.

Because of this, it’s important to educate people about the flaws in TERF ideology and to encourage critical thinking when it comes to understanding complex issues like transmisogyny, intersectional oppression, and the best ways to liberate all people from patriarchal oppression.

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