TERF Wars: Trans Exclusionary Radicals and Feminism

by thethreepennyguignol

This article originally appeared on Witty Bitches, so head over there to join in the debate and support a cool new feminist website.

I think it’s time that we talked about TERFs. Anyone involved in the feminism movement in any kind of way will probably have encountered this phrase a few times before- whether spitefully thrown out as a way to dismiss someone’s opinions (“ignore her TERF trolling”) or as a disclaimer (“feminist, not a TERF”) but what exactly that acronym means- and what kind of implications it has for feminists in the broader sense- is a factor that’s often obscured. So let’s take a closer look.

First off, what is a TERF when it comes down to it? Like all political ideologies, there are a bunch of sub-sections that bicker beneath the main banner, but those letters stand for Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist (and also spawned a million “TERF war” pun headlines whenever they clashed with the more mainstream movement). That sounds pretty self- explanatory-but there’s a lot of confusion about what precisely a TERF is. For a lot of people, it’s just a radical feminist who believes that trans people (specifically transwomen) should not benefit from or partake in the feminist movement, and should be denied access to women-only spaces (like bathrooms and refuges). And I’m not going to come right out and sweep everyone who identifies with this group under the transmysoginist or transphobic carpet, because I’ve read some interesting pieces by TERFs who vehemently argue against those terms, but I will say that a rotten bunch of people who DO identify as TERFs have been involved in pretty nasty behaviour. By which I mean, repeatedly and apparently deliberately misgendering transpeople, outrightly denying their gender, suggesting that lesbian transwomen cannot actually be lesbian, and saying some pretty repulsive stuff about the bodies of transpeople. Which is all pretty grim and unacceptable to most sane people, and most feminists.

But the real problem I have with it is suggesting that feminism is a girl’s club-specifically, a cisgender woman’s club. And I’m certain there will be TERFs who disagree with this interpretation of it, but that’s the way I see it. Sure, the majority of feminists who I’ve met during my lifetime have been women, but I also know personally (and know of, more broadly) a good number of non-cisgender women who are feminists. And that’s a pretty vital thing about feminism. Even if the movement is broadly focused on women’s issues because women suffer from the most systematic gender inequalities, it doesn’t mean that feminism is a movement for women’s power. It’s a movement for gender equality. Let me repeat that: IT’S A MOVEMENT FOR GENDER EQUALITY. As soon as you start excluding people from feminism on the basis of gender, sexual orientation or, well, anything other than the fact that their ideology just blatantly doesn’t sit well with feminism, the ground upon which feminism is built shatters. It’s vital that we call out those people who come up with tenuous reasons to try and stop people from supporting feminism, because by not doing so we’re tacitly agreeing that feminism is something that only applies to cisgender women. And that only they can participate. And that only they can benefit. And that’s bullshit, and I don’t like that idea at all.

Look, when it comes down to it, I just feminism to stop being such a dirty word. I want to throw window open and invite everyone to come and join the feminist party. Gender equality requires input from all genders, including those outside the gender binaries. If you can’t handle the thought of your little feminist clique being blown open to anyone who wants to join a long and drawn-out battle to end discrimination based on gender- whatever that gender is- than I’ve got some bad news for you: you might not be as feminist as you think.