Unpacking TERFs: Why Trans-Exclusive Feminism Isn’t Feminism

By Patrick McTague.

“How many years has it taken people to realize that we are all brothers and sisters and human beings in the human race?” – Marsha P. Johnson, leader in the Stonewall riots and Black transgender activist.

Transgender rights are human rights. Transgender women are women. Transgender men are men.

These should not be controversial statements in mainstream society, especially for those who consider themselves “on the left”, but for far too many in this world, they are. But why? Well, that depends on who you ask. For some it’s bigotry leading to denial of the existence of trans people; for others it might be ignorance, misinformation, or fear. Regardless of the why, the outcome is the same: a worrying ideology that is contributing to trans people being denied rights, being ostracised from society, and being subject to severe rates of violence. This is especially so for trans women and even more so for trans women of colour.

One group that is spreading misinformation about, and fear of, trans women, in particular, are Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs), which often call themselves “gender critical” feminists. To begin, I do not use TERF as a derogatory term, because it is not. TERF is a factual description of the ideology of this group. Their brand of feminism excludes trans women. If you’re reading this, you probably already know all you need to about this group. But for those of you who are new to the concept, here’s the basics: A trans-exclusionary feminist puts considerable stock by “biological sex”, and therefore does not believe that trans women are women. Therefore, they do not want trans women in women-only spaces nor for trans women to have the same protections as those afforded to cisgender women.  This ideology is packaged as a form of feminism. TERFs, like all groups, can vary in their beliefs from person to person, and so an in-depth analysis of the nuances of their ideology is beyond the scope of this article. But I do want to look at a few issues which have been thrust back into the spotlight recently.

The biggest issue to be found in TERF ideology is its capacity for bigotry. The second biggest issue I have is that it co-opts very real concerns about the protection and advancement of women,  in order to tell an entire section of the population that they aren’t real, that they don’t exist, and that they are not welcome. This ideology can turn something that is innately good, feminism, into concealed hate-speech.

It is important to note that some TERFs may root their beliefs in fear brought on by personal experience. They may have been abused or assaulted by men and therefore, with good cause, do not trust them and value single-sex spaces. I absolutely feel for these women. It would be impossible for me to comprehend what they have gone through, and I wish that no harm ever came upon them. I cannot fault them for not trusting men and even fearing them, however, I do fault that logic when they apply it to trans women, who are women, and not men. Cisgender men are the majority abusers of women. Trans women are not the enemy. The sad result for this type of TERF, is that fear and hatred is channeled in a misguided way.

A common misconception by TERFS is that all a man has to do is say that they are a woman and they can be legally recognised as one. It’s the same logic that outright bigots apply when they joke, “I identify as an attack helicopter”. It completely erases the lives and identities of trans women. Trans women live their lives as women, because they are women. In reality, in a lot of countries there is legislation around gender identity which proves that these TERF statements are untrue. In New Zealand, you have to meet the standard for “irreversible medical changes” to “conform” to your nominated gender.[1] In the UK, you must provide a report by medical professionals and/or registered psychiatrists specialising in gender dysphoria (the conflict between a person’s physical gender and the gender with which they identify)[2] stating that you have had or intend to have medical procedures to transition in your application for gender recognition.[3] And in the USA, Australia, Canada, and Mexico, there is no federal or nation-wide legislation allowing trans people to legally change their gender.[4]

Another common misbelief which stems from this one is that recognising trans women as women would allow for any man to wander into women-only spaces where women may be vulnerable, like bathrooms and changing rooms. Firstly, this argument is immediately disproven by the legal requirements for changing genders stated above in that you have to commit to being a woman before you can be recognised as one (if you can be recognised as one) legally. The idea that cisgender men would go to the effort of irreversible medical changes in order to enter female only spaces to abuse women, is absurd. Cisgender male abusers are quite able to abuse women without going to such lengths, as is made clear by the rising global rates of violence against women and girls.

But the real fatal flaw in this logic, for me, is that which bathroom you use is dictated more by social norms than legislation. Cisgender women don’t present their birth certificates when they enter a changing room to prove they are women, so why would trans women? Following the TERF logic would see all trans men, who are men, being forced to use women’s facilities, and trans women to use men’s facilities. The likelihood of increased harassment, discriminatory behaviour, and assault (especially for trans women) is much higher in this circumstance than if trans people were not only legally allowed, but socially welcome in their correct gendered facilities.

And if we follow this misguided theory to its logical conclusion, while TERFs claim to advocate for protection for women from men in these circumstances; what they are actually doing is putting women into more severe harm’s way by forcing them into male-only spaces. While I have found no evidence of cisgender women being routinely harassed by trans women in these spaces; there is a lot of evidence that trans women are routinely harassed, assaulted, and murdered by cisgender men.[5] More empathy needs to be shown towards trans women in these situations.

Another big issue that TERFs are concerned about is inclusive language. Particularly the term “menstruator”. They often state that the term is demeaning and dehumanizing to women. That introducing such a term reduces them from a person to a bodily function. Quite frankly, I find it purposely obtuse to make such claims. TERFs inflate the use of the term menstruators from a scientific, anatomically correct, sparsely used term to a replacement for the word woman. In reality, nobody is replacing the word “woman”. Nobody has ever said a woman cannot refer to herself as a woman, nobody ever would. The term menstruator is used in a handful of places to be scientifically correct and inclusive, e.g. for doctors when talking about the menstrual cycle, for sanitary product manufacturers in packaging or marketing. In these situations, using the term woman excludes all trans men who menstruate; therefore, a new inclusive term should be found to ensure accuracy. While menstruators is not a flattering word, and likely won’t be the final inclusive term settled on, it is scientifically accurate and inclusive and, importantly for this article, does not in any way take away from the word woman, replace it, nor diminish it.

And that leads us to the crux of the issue. TERFs see recognition of trans women as women, and the rights that come with that, as erosion of womanhood and women’s rights. I would argue, as would many trans people and advocates, that trans recognition and rights actually build on women’s rights, as they build on human rights. Societal and legal advancement for one group of women means that women as a whole are moved forward and leaving our sisters behind only leaves room for those who hate to overtake and destroy them.

That being said, and I cannot state this more clearly, TERFs should not be subject to the misogynistic, hateful, abuse that they sometimes receive online. There is no excuse for sending rape threats or death threats, we are fighting for a world where women are never threatened with, or experience, gendered violence. I do not condone in any way, threats of violence or misogynist insults being hurled at TERFs. And hurling insults and threats is no way to change anyone’s heart or mind. As Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.”

[1] https://communitylaw.org.nz/community-law-manual/chapter-7-gender-and-sexuality/gender-and-gender-identity/changing-gender-markers-and-names/

[2] https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/gender-dysphoria/what-is-gender-dysphoria

[3] http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2004/7/section/3

[4] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2017/01/gender-identity-map-where-you-can-change-your-gender-on-legal-documents/

[5] https://www.hrc.org/resources/violence-against-the-transgender-community-in-2019

Patrick is a straight, white cisgender male and recognises that his privilege makes him much less qualified to write on the topic of trans rights than many. With that in mind, here are some resources from trans creators to help continue your education:

Gender Critical by Contrapoints

An open letter to J.K. Rowling by The Mermaids Team

Why people are mad about the term ‘menstruators’ by Samantha Riedel

How Britain’s colonial past can be traced through to the transphobic feminism of today by Amrou Al-Kadhi

Donate to Black Trans Groups

Photo by Ted Eytan on flickr.

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