TERFs - or trans-exclusionary radical feminists - is an internet buzzword that recently rose from obscurity and found itself increasingly in newspaper headlines, TV shows and mainstream discussion.
Pretty much shorthand for ‘transphobic bigot’, the acronym refers people who preaches hate and exclusion against transgender women in the name of feminism. Their message attempts to deny trans people basic human rights, from access to healthcare to access to women’s spaces, and attack their identity.
The quarrel has spiked following government plans to consult on reforming the Gender Recognition Act (GRA), which could allow transgender people to self-declare their gender and reflect that “being trans is not an illness”.
Under current law, anyone wishing to transition must demonstrate they have lived as that gender for two years. Reform would remove bureaucratic stoppages in the process of changing a person's gender on their birth certificate.
Freelance LGBT+ journalist Amelia Abraham is concerned that the level of vitriol surrounding the ‘debate’ from “some self-proclaimed feminists towards trans people seems to be rising”.
Transphobia is officially mainstream. Earlier this year, transgender campaigners and organisations released an open letter to Channel 4 criticising Genderquake, a season of programmes touted as an exploration of the gender debate, as "counterproductive".
Given an equal platform to trans people defending their right to exist, Germaine Greer - who has previously said transgender women "can't be women" - sat on the Genderquake: The Debate panel as trans panelists were repeatedly heckled by audience members.
Yet trans people continue to engage and help educate people about trans issues, taking time to explain how cis people can be better allies, debunk transgender myths and speak about their experiences. As a reward, they are often met with a barrage of transphobic comments online.
On Twitter, Amelia sees “brilliant trans people” - such as Juno Roche, Shon Faye, Paris Lees, Munroe Bergdorf, Lily Madigan, for example - “rise above the transphobia with dignity, or if they do engage, counter it with research or fact-based insight”. Tools to shut trans women up include claims they are speaking with ‘male privilege’ and ‘you’re a man’. Amelia explained:
It feels to me, generally speaking, like trans people are on the defence and transphobic people (I prefer to use this as an umbrella term over “TERFs” because it’s more straightforward) are on the attack.
Yet trans women are the kind of marginalised group that feminism has vowed to protect: they are not invading women-only spaces, rather sharing them. They need them too.
A study conducted by Stonewall and YouGov show that two in five trans people and three in ten non binary people have experienced a hate crime or incident directly related to their gender identity in the last 12 months.
Studies have also shown that the trans community suffers from high levels of suicide, where up to 45 per cent of trans youth have attempted suicide and 84 per cent have self harmed.
Feminism is about inclusivity and the empowerment of all
Bridie Wilkinson, co-founder of women’s writing collective Dear Damsels, said she has “been watching from the side-lines in horror” at the growth of anti-trans views within feminism. She too underlines that it’s trans women who are under attack, despite complaints that cisgender women’s voices are being shut out.
Women have been fighting for their rights for centuries - and feminists are calling on others to add their voice to the struggle that transgender people are experiencing. Otherwise, it's no feminism, argues Bridie:
Feminism that excludes trans people isn’t feminism.
Transwomen are women, and are subject to the same misogyny and oppression as ciswomen – as well as having to face transphobia from the very movement that is intended to liberate their gender.
Transphobic women’s group are a minority, but they are splitting feminism in two. The women’s group Object, which has brilliant tackled sexist media stereotypes in the past, has become a hotpot of transphobia. Just a glance at their Facebook page find references to the ‘cult of transgenderism’ and the ‘transcult’. Amelia calls out such views and the labels “fear mongering” and “sensationalist”:
My gut reaction is that this is not a strain of feminism I want to be a part of, I find it hateful.
The kind of feminism I want to be a part of is inclusive and supports civil rights and human rights for everybody, regardless of their age, race, religion, sexuality or – importantly – their gender identity.
If feminism is about tolerance and inclusivity, then why are some feminist groups such a hotpot for transphobic ideas?
As someone who identifies as a feminist myself, I think that we’re in a time of high tension and frustration. Off the back of the #Metoo movement we’re realising that decades of dedicated activism hasn’t brought us as much progress as we might have hoped for.
I feel a lot of the transphobia I see is misplaced anger – we should be angry with patriarchy on a structural level and those who seek to bolster it at the expense of women (trans and cis women), not transgender individuals who are some of the most vulnerable people in society.
Bridie too believes that “transphobia within the feminist community is born out a fear” and go against the very nature of what feminism stands for:
Because if feminism doesn’t include the empowerment and liberation of all women, it’s not feminism. Success for one demographic of women doesn’t mean success for all – it just continues to perpetrate the toxic, oppressive structures of society.
We need to be allies, we need to support trans people and promote their voices just as much as we would cis women.
What can we do to help? Listen to trans stories, share them, promote them and see them thrive, as well as understanding the difficulties trans people face. As Amelia put it, “it’s easier to be afraid of something that is unfamiliar to you”. She added that feminists should share their labour and help educate others:
Another thing we can do is have conversations with friends who consider themselves feminists but are confused about the current debates in the media around the GRA or women’s only spaces, to give them room to voice questions that they might have and to convey some second-hand insight into what trans people are up against (particularly if these friends are not LGBT+, or do not know anyone trans personally).
‘When I see transphobic beliefs being spread I feel irritated, but also exhaustingly bored.’
Alice*, who chose to stay anonymous, can be “talking about anything at all” on her Twitter account for her to be drowned in transphobic comments, sarcasm and people mocking her appearance. What started off as intimidating quickly became dull. “I just block and move on,” she explained, adding:
When I see transphobic beliefs being spread I feel irritated, but also exhaustingly bored. It’s usually the same few hundred people over and over posting complete hateful nonsense, but none of it is new and it has little impact.
Imagine if just existing sparked such quantities of hatred in people that it eventually got boring. Normalised bigotry is easier to ignore and she maintains we need to be careful:
Just because I don’t find them scary anymore doesn’t mean that what they’re doing is remotely okay. The sort of harassment campaigns they run against trans people of all ages, even children, is disgusting. They’re completely deprived of empathy.
Framing discussions around trans identities as a ‘debate’, and dismissing rejections of transphobia as rejections of free speech, give transphobia a free reign where other forms of hatred would be more likely be restrained.
Not least, Alice sees the ‘trans debate’ as a “pointless distraction”. The backlash against the government’s proposed changes to the GRA claim that that trans women and even predatory men will ‘invade’ women’s spaces if these changes go forward, putting cis-gender women in danger.
But trans women are already in women-only spaces - in toilets and refuges, changing rooms and sports competitions. Yet there are no call to arms for the so-called ‘war on women’, apparently being fought by trans people who are actually just trying to live their lives.
In the open letter criticising Genderquake, trans activists point out that that trans women are not a threat to anyone: in countries where similar gender recognition laws are already in place, there have been no incidents of people changing their documents for malicious purposes. Rather, Alice argues, TERFs are missing the point:
Since my transition I've been a victim of the same sort of misogynistic harassment and intimidation that cis women go through, but TERFs like to position trans women especially as a group who don't face the same challenges that other women do, which is simply not true.
Meanwhile they outright ignore trans men altogether, who face their own challenges and have valuable experiences to share in feminist spaces.
All three of our interviewees agree that tackling transphobia is all about education - and everyone who counts themselves as a trans ally has responsibility for that, said Alice:
I do think it’s notable though that TERFs say is usually full of assumptions and misunderstandings. It seems that whenever anyone actually gets to know the trans community or educate themselves on our experiences, they see transphobia for the pointless hate that it is.
*Alice is not the interviewee's real name