As feminists, we’ve wasted so many years and so much energy, anger, and depression on the question of who gets to be considered a woman.
In 1973, some radical women called for trans woman Sylvia Riveira, one of the leaders of the Stonewall Riot, to be ejected from the platform at New York Pride. At the West Coast Lesbian Feminist conference in Los Angeles that year, poet Robin Morgan called for the expulsion of trans woman Beth Elliott, one of the conference organizers. She lost the vote but Elliott left to prevent further disruption.
The attack by self-identified radical feminists on trans people’s participation in feminism and the LGBT movement has never been a response to any bad behavior by trans women or trans men. Some of its highest-profile targets have been people who have worked hard for feminist and LGBT causes. Part of the paradox of trans-exclusionary radical feminism has always been that it is based so totally on applying a theoretical framework to lived experience; it is based on an idea, and yet manifests as extremely personal vindictiveness and vendettas.
The acronym TERF was devised by other radical feminists to distinguish their own politics from the antitrans variety; the claim that it was devised by trans people as a slur is untrue. It does sound kind of nasty, though, which is probably why it caught on. The TERF idea is that sex is entirely binary, that the oppression of women is entirely based on that binary difference; that gender is a malign fiction created by a patriarchy that exists wholly and solely to oppress women as a class. Accordingly, they think the existence of trans people is a delusion perpetuated as a new mode of oppression — trans women exist in order to give the idea of gender plausibility, and to divide women’s community by entering it, something TERF theorist Janice Raymond compared to rape in her 1979 book The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male. You might think the existence of trans men and genderqueer people would be a problem for this analysis, but no. The patriarchy has summoned them into existence to shore up its plan and legitimize the existence of trans women. None of this explains, of course, the existence of gender-variant people in most human cultures and the particular violence against them by patriarchal society. Figures are not collected everywhere, but we know that at least 200 trans people, primarily trans women of color from the global South, are murdered each year. TERF Bev Jo Von Dohre has said, “They expect we’ll be shocked to see statistics about them being killed, and don’t realize, some of us wish they would all be dead.” Nor is Von Dohre an outlier — she is a regular contributor to Gallus Mag’s dedicated anti-trans site Gendertrender, recently cited by academic Sheila Jeffreys in her new book, Gender Hurts. There is a continuum of personal association and verbal support between academics like Jeffreys and Raymond on the one hand and TERF activists and bloggers on the other. Mag is notorious in the trans community for her personal attacks on individual trans people, doxing their online activities, but this personal vindictiveness is not restricted to anonymous bloggers.
Raymond called for a boycott of lesbian feminist record company Olivia for using trans woman Sandy Stone as a sound engineer, and Germaine Greer tried to prevent the appointment of a trans astrophysicist at her Cambridge college. (Greer threatened to boycott a major project of feminist scholarship if I was working on it.) Trans women who have contributed to feminism over the last half-century have done so knowing that their work might be attacked and discredited as the work of porn-sick perverts.
The trouble with the acronym TERF is that it fundamentally ignores the extent to which Raymond, Jeffreys, and their followers despise most other women. They believe that all women who have sex with men are at best victims of Stockholm Syndrome and at worse quislings; that bisexual women are particularly reprehensible because they could choose to sleep only with women. They detest BDSM women — Jeffreys tried to have them thrown out of the London Lesbian and Gay Centre. She has also written that piercing and tattooing are unfeminist, a product of self-hatred under patriarchy. Their detestation of trans people is symptomatic of a more general sense that they are the saving remnant of a finer, purer feminism that was stabbed in the back by weaker sisters.
Accordingly, they regard the growing acceptance of trans people by other lesbians and feminists as proof that patriarchy’s cunning plan has worked, rather than as a call to reconsider their position. They regard socialist feminist analyses that see patriarchy as about power and wealth, the oppression of women an inevitable byproduct, as “liberal,” not more radical. They ignore any scientific evidence that sex is not as clearly binary as all that, or that the bodies or brains of some trans people might exhibit anomalies. In the war of neoliberalism and reaction to all women and all minorities, they reject calls for broad alliances or an intersectional feminism that respects difference. For them, acceptance of trans rights can only come at the expense of their own centrality to female space.
Why does any of this matter? It’s not very nice to be told on Twitter that postoperative trans women’s genitals smell of “hibiscus and pus,” or to have photos of my younger, more glamorous self waved around to mock me for growing old. Trans people who mention their PTSD or depression are liable to find themselves being harassed. Block buttons work — but there’s more than the Internet to consider.
Raymond allied with the Catholic Church in the 1980s to persuade the U.S. Congress to take away federal funds from trans health care. No one knows how many trans people have died or been killed as a result — estimates say 50,000. Jeffreys has called for a ban on trans medical care by international treaty as a human rights violation. (Losing access to hormone replacement therapy would wreck the health of most older trans people.) TERF activists are quite prepared to ally with the right over change of civil status or the right of trans people to be safe in toilets, or to prevent trans women access to rape crisis centers. When a rightwing group lied that a trans teenager had behaved abusively at school and people called for her death on Fox News’s website, it was TERF Cathy Brennan who made the girl’s name public, leading to her being put on suicide watch. The lives of trans people are less important than their ideology; Raymond called for transsexuality to be “morally mandated out of existence.”
Trans people are not going away. We will go on contributing as part of feminism and gay liberation. Perhaps the sheer nastiness of TERFs comes from the fact that they don’t just know they’ve lost; they know they were on the wrong side from the beginning.