I Don’t Get It: TERFs

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Words || Harry Fraser

Have you ever written a wildly successful young adult fantasy novel series that took off and got made into an even more successful movie franchise? There are theme parks and spin-off films and even a theatre production. You created a universe so intriguing and magical it captured the imaginations of youth around the world. 

Then you started talking shit on Twitter about trans people and now the youth are having to reconcile this with the aforementioned beloved cultural phenomenon. If you didn’t do all those things, then you might wonder why someone would do that. That’s fair. 

This issue for ‘I Don’t Get It,’ we’re going to deep dive into an idea with many names, TERF/gender critical/biological feminism, to find out why some random white ladies butter their bread with anti-trans activism. 

The term TERF stands for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists, which will give you a hint as to what’s coming. The label TERF carries with it some derogatory undertones, so other labels have popped up in its place, like gender critical. Regardless of what you call it by, this idea revolves around the central argument that gender is a patriarchal institution (I’m with you so far) and therefore the only true indication of whether you are a man or woman is biological sex. 

So much promise in critiquing the patriarchal institution of gender only to fall back to biological essentialism. Such a letdown ngl.

A brief caveat: I am not a gender studies expert. I took one course in first year (we stan Professor Sheehan) and there are people out there who know much more than I. One key resource (which I would highly recommend) is Natalie Wynn and her YouTube channel Contrapoints

Over the past couple of years, there has been growing debate between groups of feminists that diverge as to the status of trans women in particular. Just for clarity, trans women often include those who identify as a woman and use she/her pronouns. Trans men should not be overlooked, but much of the discussion revolves around trans women. 

On one side of the debate are feminists who advocate and support trans women by supporting their recognition as women and believe that feminism necessarily involves defending the rights of trans women. On the other side are those who question and deny the recognition of trans women and characterise trans men as lost or the product of a patriarchy-fuelled identity crisis. 

To the latter group, TERF is considered a slur. Whether or not it is a slur, TERF denotes a distinctive stream of feminist thought that does two key things: it denies the inclusion of trans women, and forcibly includes trans men in the category of woman. 

On a sidenote, the inclusion of trans men is often used as an argument against the label TERF, because they aren’t excluding trans people, but rather including them (although only trans men). While technically, TERFs are including trans men, I think we can agree that including someone in a category they have sought to reject by way of no longer self-identifying with it is not what is meant by inclusivity. 

While the term TERF can be construed as problematic and potentially misleading, the alternatives are not much better. Feminists who deny trans recognition much prefer to be called gender critical. While more palatable for those who identify with those beliefs, this label is equally, if not more misleading. 

Feminism as a whole, encompassing all the various different strands that exist within it, is inherently gender critical. That is basically the whole point. Feminists all agree that gender ultimately should not disadvantage anyone. No feminist could be found arguing that conceptions of gender are just fine as they are. 

To then imply that only those who are anti-trans activists are critical of gender is to say that other feminists, including trans feminists, are not. This is plainly incorrect. While there is no ideal label for adherents of anti-trans ideas, TERFs is the shortest and least misleading, and I’m conscious of my word count. 

From what I can gather, much of the anti-trans activism revolves around the perception that debates cannot be had around ‘gender ideology.’ It’s hard to deny that it is becoming more and more challenging to have meaningful discussions around complex issues. 

Discriminatory laws and policies, negative and damaging cultural depiction as well as high rates of family rejection faced by trans people are enough to put anyone on the defensive. Every interaction, particularly in public, is a battleground. No compromises can be made, the marginalised must stick together and protect themselves with protective aphorisms: “trans women are women,” or “trans rights are human rights.”

These statements are undeniably true. However, the issue arises when people who know nothing of trans issues, i.e. a very many people, can be left without the details of what it means to be trans, including those well-versed in feminist theory, but not trans feminism and queer theory. 

I want to make it unequivocally clear that I am not suggesting that the onus for educating the general public about trans issues rests solely on trans people. As noted above, trans people face a stunning array of intersecting challenges that far too often have devastating consequences. The average life expectancy of a trans woman is 36. 1 in 3 trans teenagers attempt suicide. 72% of victims of anti-LGBTQ related hate crimes were trans women. 

The reality for many trans people is that life is arduous. I would argue that being defensive of your right to exist and be recognised is a fairly natural reaction. Moreover, it reflects a saddening fact that at least some public support is needed to extend a marginalised group dignity and basic human rights. 

The point in bringing up the fact that feminist theory has in the past failed to include trans issues I think provides insight for understanding where TERFs get their ideas from. Many of the typical arguments directed towards trans women have their origins in key tenets of feminism. These include the experience of growing up female or reinforcing damaging stereotypes of womanhood and femininity. 

While this definitely does not justify their anti-trans views, it does help to deconstruct why many feminists like Germaine Greer and Janice Raymond think the way they do.

Consider the oft-used criticism that trans women, by wearing feminine clothes and putting on makeup, reinforce problematic gender stereotypes of what it means to be a woman. There are two issues this throws up. Firstly, it seems unfair and hypocritical to target an already marginalised group for adhering to standards of femininity and womanhood when many cis women do the same. I’m not saying that stereotypes are not a problem, but the solution does not lie with targeting trans women’s expressions of their gender identity. 

This leads me to the second issue, the reason that many trans people conform to gender stereotypes is because it enables them to be recognised as who they are. That is to say, some trans women conform to female stereotypes so as to align more closely with what a patriarchal society considers a woman to be. By doing this, trans women are engaging with society in a language of gender expression it recognises. 

Unfortunately, we still live in a world hung up on binary gender and gender essentialism, the idea that we are innately a man or a woman at our core. Without delving into gender performativity and queer theory, the reason that a trans woman wears ultra-feminine clothes and flawless makeup is because in order to be recognised as the gender you are, you have to play the game. Being misgendered is demoralising and disheartening. If it can be avoided, I would bet that anyone would do the same. 

No one is going to call you sir if you dress like a woman and vice versa. Our societies rely on gender performances to signify a gender identity. You dress like a man, walk like a man and go to your car at night without fear and that makes you a man. The same is true for trans people. If they don’t conform to established gender expressions of woman and man, they risk being further marginalised. 

Cisgender women who present a masculine expression of gender are often displeased with what they consider to be unhelpful hyper-feminine stereotypes that trans women adopt. They have been resisting these stereotypes their whole life. What’s more, if anyone can empathise with the experience of coercive gender expression, it’s trans people. It’s almost like trans people and feminists (and those who identify as both) have been fighting the same system of oppression. Interesting. 

Ultimately, the issue is with patriarchal performances of gender, not the people who must perform them in order to gain a semblance of acceptance in society. If culturally, what it meant to be a woman or a man was more fluid, everyone would win. 

An additional accusation lodged at trans women is that they did not experience female oppression for much of their life, even so far as enjoying male privilege prior to their transition. They didn’t grow up being talked over, worrying whether a date would become a life-threatening situation or experiencing sexual harassment.

For some trans women, there may be truth to the fact that they enjoyed some form of male privilege at some point in their life. However, it is extremely relevant to point out that trans women are one of the most violated and brutalised populations. Simply because one possesses a Y Chromosome does not mean they continue to be immune from the misogyny all too prevalent in patriarchal societies. 

If a trans woman does not pass, (that is, pass for a cis woman), she is not treated as a man and all the privilege that entails, but something else. Less than. It is therefore highly inappropriate to characterise the experience of trans women as one of male privilege.

Another important thing to note is that not all trans people have the same journey. For example, Kim Petras who transitioned quite young, spent many of her formative years living as a woman. Contrast this with Caitlyn Jenner, who lived most of her life as a wealthy, white man. Each would have experienced varying levels of female oppression during their lives. 

Ultimately, there is nothing to be meaningfully gained by excluding and demonising trans people, especially trans women. It is clear that all women, regardless of whether they are cis or trans are adversely impacted by the patriarchy. Even men are damaged. It seems to me that we should be united in striving for a better society that places far less value on gender and allows greater freedom of gender expression. 

There is nothing to be gained by feminists targeting a marginalised group of women struggling for recognition and facing extreme systemic oppression. A shared experience such as this should be something to unite cis and trans women, as they share a common enemy. Letting ourselves be divided like this does nothing to further our aspirations and activism, only hinder it.