The Anti-Trans Movement
Whether they are called TERFs, Gender Critical, anti-trans – it all amounts to the same thing: discrimination that disguises itself as feminism.
A number of days ago I posted on Facebook that our new President had completed 17 Executive Orders in the hours following his inauguration. I was surprised when one of my so-called friends tried to say that Biden had “wiped out Title IX”. My friends called her out on that, since Biden had done no such thing. She was referring to the Order that reinforces the Civil Rights Act, specifically for sexual orientation and gender identity, thereby annulling Trump’s Order. My so-called friend apparently doesn’t believe in gender identity, just assigned-at-birth gender. I got into the fray and disagreed with her, and the rest of the day was spent countering her statements while she tried to bully me, continually asking me to answer the question “What is a Woman?” and became angry when I said I wasn’t going to be pigeon-holed by answering that. I said a few times that she would not change my mind and I didn’t think I’d change hers, and finally said that I would no longer engage in this topic with her. Not that this statement has stopped her from commenting on my posts in a taunting way.
And then I got to work doing some research on transphobia. Wikipedia says:
Transfeminist theorist and author Julia Serano argues in her book Whipping Girl that transphobia is rooted in sexism, and locates the origins of both transphobia and homophobia in what she calls “oppositional sexism”, the belief that male and female are “rigid, mutually exclusive categories, each possessing a unique and nonoverlapping set of attributes, aptitudes, abilities, and desires”. Serano contrasts oppositional sexism with “traditional sexism”, the belief that males and masculinity are superior to females and femininity. Furthermore, she writes that transphobia is fueled by insecurities people have about gender and gender norms.
Transgender author and critic Jody Norton believes that transphobia is an extension of homophobia and misogyny. She argues that transgender people, like gays and lesbians, are hated and feared for challenging and undermining gender norms and the gender binary. Norton writes that the “male-to-female transgender incites transphobia through her implicit challenge to the binary division of gender upon which male cultural and political hegemony depends.”
But that doesn’t make sense. Feminists are trying to eliminate sexism, not create new types! So I looked further, searching for information on TERFs.
What is a TERF? Wikipedia says:
TERF (/ˈtɜːrf/, also written terf) is an acronym for trans-exclusionary radical feminist. Coined in 2008, the term was originally applied to a minority of feminists espousing sentiments that other feminists consider transphobic, such as the rejection of the assertion that trans women are women, the exclusion of trans women from women’s spaces, and opposition to transgender rights legislation. The meaning has since expanded to refer more broadly to people with trans-exclusionary views who may have no involvement with radical feminism.
Those referred to with the word TERF typically reject the term or consider it a slur; some identify themselves as gender critical. Critics of the word TERF say that it has been used in insults and alongside violent rhetoric. In academic discourse, there is no consensus on whether TERF constitutes a slur.
I see the term as descriptive – someone who believes they are a feminist who wants to exclude trans women. For me, this was a contradiction. Why wouldn’t these feminists welcome trans women into their corner? Don’t they all have a lot in common? Why do they want to cause more discrimination? And why do they employ bullying? Stanford Gender Research had this to say:
“The TERF is the person that makes alt-right troll techniques and politics acceptable to liberals who under no other circumstances would acknowledge their relationship with or their debt to people like Milo Yiannopoulos. But because it’s coming from this apparently embattled group of white feminists, that relationship is allowed to be sustained, and with a bit of luck, perhaps not for much longer.” — Grace Lavery
Well, that doesn’t really explain it, but I did see that this technique is SOP.
And then I see that the TERF organizations are in bed with right wing groups, as noted in UK’s Sage Journal:
Simultaneously, a growing number of anti-trans campaigners associated with radical feminist movements have openly aligned themselves with anti-feminist organisations. For instance, from 2017 US group the Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF) have partnered with conservative organisations The Heritage Foundation and Family Policy Alliance, both known for supporting traditional gender roles and opposing abortion rights, comprehensive sex education and same-sex marriage. This raises the question of whether groups such as WoLF might properly be considered ‘radical feminist’ (and hence, ‘TERF’) organisations at all. However, it is important to acknowledge that such organisations do explicitly draw on the language of women’s liberation, and effectively represent the legacy of radical feminist writers such as Raymond (1979) and Jeffreys (1997). Feminists – and especially radical feminists – must contend with this: hence the creation of the ‘TERF’ acronym in the first place. In this work, we therefore seek to focus specifically on trans-exclusionary ideology and action that is associated with feminisms, rather than attempting to draw a boundary around what does or does not ‘count’ as a feminist intervention.
And then I was reminded of NC’s “bathroom bill”:
This kind of argument is a contemporary manifestation of older sex/gender essentialist discourses: trans women have long been positioned as a threat to cis women’s safety, especially in Western societies, because trans women’s bodies have been discursively associated with dangerous male sexuality and potential sexual predation (Westbrook & Schilt, 2014). Women-only facilities like toilets are often positioned as ‘safe spaces’ granting (cis) women protection against gender-based harm, and especially sexual violence (see Jones & Slater, this collection). Yet, this notion of toilet ‘safety’ is part of a wider protectionist politics around (cis) women’s bodies that function to protect idealised notions of white female vulnerability (Patel, 2017; see also Koyama, this collection). The cultural positioning of trans women as dangerous to cis women relies on gendered conceptualisations of (cis, implicitly white) women as necessarily fragile in relation to (cis) men, who in turn are conceptualised as having superior physical (and sexual) prowess. By positioning (cis, white) ‘females’ as a category uniquely vulnerable to the threat of ‘male’ violence (and especially ‘biological’ male sexual violence), trans-exclusionary arguments around toilet access – including those advanced by self-proclaimed feminist groups – lend support to the gendered and misogynistic discourses that have long positioned (white) women as the ‘weaker sex’ needing protection (by men, from men).
These discourses have racist undertones, as the implicit whiteness of the women who are the subject of protection means that racialised and especially Black women and non-binary people are more likely to be considered dangerously masculine (Patel, 2017). This is due to the enduring colonial legacies that have long defined racialised women as the unfeminine or ‘masculine’ contrast to white women’s presumed ‘natural’ femininity (see e.g. McClintock, 2013). Racialised women (cis and trans alike), non-binary and intersex people are especially likely to be rendered ‘gender suspect’ due to discourses that position bodies of colour as gender deviant in relation to white body norms (Gill-Peterson, 2018; Snorton, 2017). Moreover, discourses that position trans women and non-binary people as a ‘threat’ to cis women elude how (white) cis women’s ability to claim a position of vulnerability in this context is, itself, a reflection of the power that (white) cis women have over trans women (as well as racialised subjects of all genders). One’s ability to be recognised or awarded a position as ‘vulnerable’ is conditioned by whiteness and gender normativity. It is often trans women and non-binary people, especially trans women and non-binary people of colour, who are most vulnerable to gender-based violence in women-only spaces in material terms (see Jones and Slater, this collection). It is disproportionately cis people (both women and men) who are dangerous to, and perpetrators of violence against, trans women, not the other way around (Bachman & Gooch, 2018; Hasenbush et al., 2019). In this way, trans-exclusionary feminist politics can work to erase forms of gendered and racialised violence.
Let’s take a moment to look at some of the history of the Women’s Movement. In the runup for getting the vote here in the US, some of the southern states balked at inclusion of women of color. And leadership went along with that. Then in the 60’s, some of the leadership decided that they didn’t want to include lesbians. And now, the targeted exclusion is trans women. So this exclusion practice isn’t anything new.
I began to come across their term of “binary sex”, the idea that one is either female or male. Back in the day when I was taking classes for my Psych minor, I learned that sexuality isn’t just one or the other, but rather a (sometimes moving) point on the spectrum. This is what Louisa Sousa has to say on that topic.
TERFs prefer to cling to a regressive biopolitics which ties the categories of “men” and “women” to purely biological characteristics, resulting in a strictly binary model that sees intersex people as anomalies that do not challenge the binary.
According to them, gender consists simply of social roles created by the patriarchy with the objective of oppressing women. Thus, they believe that gender roles and gender identity should be abolished while the sexual binary and “sex-based legislation” should be maintained. This vision is flawed in many ways.
The first issue I take with it is that gender goes way beyond social roles reinforced by the patriarchy, especially when you take in account the existence of alternative gender identities in indigenous societies that can hardly be called patriarchal. This vision also denies the validity of transgender identities, since the only thing that matters to them is the “biological sex”. Besides, the abolition of gender roles can be accomplished without erasing the gender identities of transgender people, which would be an imposition of gender rather than the abolition of gender.
What they claim to be an abolition of gender is simply an abolition of the concept of gender rather than gender itself. Categories such as “men” and “women” are gendered categories, even when tied to purely biological characteristics. And tying gender to arbitrary biological characteristics and calling it sex is precisely what most reactionaries want.
Even if we were to base gender purely on biology, there is no consensus in biology regarding how sex should be classified. Looking at the history of sex in biology, we can see how definitions of sex changed through time as new discoveries were made and scientists created new ways of categorizing sex.
And as mentioned before, biologists are increasingly seeing sex as a spectrum without clear boundaries between different categories. This vision has been gaining notoriety through studies and articles in academic journals and publications such asNature and Scientific American. Either way, gender goes way beyond biology. Still, the debate that is taking place in biology is a clear demonstration that even when talking strictly about biological sex, the vision presented by TERFs is simplistic and regressive.
Anti-trans people also believe that trans men are simply reacting to the patriarchal system and that they don’t really want to be men, they just want to have the privilege that men are given.
So let’s talk about privilege and exclusion from women’s spaces. That’s the reason a friend of mine (a real friend) didn’t choose to share space with trans women when attending lesbian events. She believed that once a person had a sense of privilege, that would never go away. I inferred that she felt she might feel triggered by trans women, since she had been both emotionally and physically abused by her ex-husband. She chose to stay home from events that were inclusive.
I do believe that the TERF movement has so badly misrepresented trans women by cherry-picking a few instances of violence. Though it’s a sad statement on humans, we are an occasionally violent species. I’m including links for the articles I’ve cited if you want to read about this. And I definitely encourage you to do so.
I’m sure there are many more nuanced issues to unpack in this anti-trans movement; and this is what I’ve learned so far. It wasn’t until I started doing this research that I discovered what it was all about. But I knew, in my gut, that anti-trans stance was morally wrong.
And to answer that question of What is a Woman?
Anyone who identifies as such.