What’s in a TERF?

CN suicide, transmisogyny, violence

To the endless bafflement of people whose sense of ethical behavior does not include driving strangers to self-harm, the transgender community faces intense hostility. What is interesting in our case is that people with extraordinarily different overall ideologies come to equally intense hatred of transgender people in general and trans women in particular, and this makes some words we are tempted to use to encompass all of our detractors a poor fit. This brings is to that famously deadly group, the TERFs.

For those who have avoided the hazard these people represent, “TERF” is an acronym for “trans-exclusive radical feminist.” The latter two letters in particular indicate why this term is not usefully extended to transantagonists who justify their bigotry in religious terms. Religious transantagonists typically approve of no more than feminism’s first wave and, if pressed, might wish to walk back even that much, relishing the thought of Western women again lacking access to their own property, vote, inheritance, or social approval for such masculine behaviors as wearing pants. TERFs, by contrast, originate within feminism and build their transantagonism from a strange mishmash of feminist discourse. The result is a convergent bigotry that strongly resembles conventional transantagonism and spawns many other doctrines shared with the bigoted right, but exists in a very different environment.

A few key facts about TERFs underlie their ideology. Their feminism largely ossified in the second wave, and where they even have thoughts on feminism itself, it is in opposition to the third wave and to recent refinements thereof. This means that they view femininity as a toxic cultural construct that cannot be redeemed, whose sole purpose is trapping women in deliberately impairing artifice and weakness, and the liberation of women hinges on rejecting femininity and embracing, instead, the visual language of power—i.e., masculine presentation and behavior norms. TERFs are the closest that actual humans come to resembling past decades’ caricatures of feminists as short-haired women wearing men’s clothes and presenting bizarre complaints about words like “history” and “semester” being unacceptably male-centric. (In contrast, the third wave generally seeks to change the language of power itself to no longer penalize femininity, and to replace the toxic masculine norms with less hostile, more compassionate, more caring patterns otherwise found mostly in femininity.) To a TERF, the ultimate avatar of feminism is a short-haired, brusque, angry woman in an ill-fitting suit competing with men on men’s terms and winning, and any other view is betrayal of the cause.

This pattern, anachronistic and blinkered as it is, is not enough to make these people target transgender people on its own. From this unwholesome starting point, TERFs go on to claim that the idea of gender itself is a patriarchal imposition meant entirely to define one class, called “women,” as subordinate, inferior, and available to be oppressed by another, called “men.” The classes defined in this way, in TERF ideology, are immutably fixed, more so even than the Marxist dichotomy between the proletariat and bourgeoisie on which it is based and comparable to the racial hierarchies that TERFs delight in invoking to justify their bigotry, and they are fixed in primitive, gender-essentialist, birth-assignment, genital-based terms. The “gender abolition” they envision will erase this subordinate status for women, but until then, anyone who endeavors to exit their “class” and especially those who aim to join the other are spies, traitors, and worse. In this view, trans men are confused women who tragically identify with their oppressors in a kind of ideological Stockholm syndrome, and TERFs treat them with pity and contempt. Trans women instead receive intense, violent scorn. In TERF logic, trans women are “handmaidens of the patriarchy” who “reify the gender binary” by “seeking” to be women rather than simply do whatever feminine things we had in mind from within maleness. Further, by even wanting to do any kind of feminine thing, we reinforce that dread construct femininity as a marker for womanhood, hampering second-wave efforts to finally destroy it and free women from expectations of artifice, frivolity, and weakness. Most aggressively, TERFs hold we are men who seek to “appropriate” womanhood and “infiltrate” women’s spaces, to rework agendas or even do violence to “real” women, as part of yet another effort by the patriarchy to break any move women might make to gain freedom from it.

While this summary shows TERFs to have much in common with bigots who do not originate within feminism, it also creates major differences with the broader bigot population. Religious transantagonism is intensely promoted by men, as is everything else in right-wing religious ideology, because of its anti-feminist insistence on male authority. Women in these circles range from supporting cast to props whose “safety” is invoked as a reason to determinedly treat trans men as women and trans women as men. TERFs, as a second-wave feminist group intensely hostile to men, are instead dominated by lesbians, political or otherwise, who insist on both highly performative androgyny and emphatic statements of their membership in the “woman” class. Because of all this, anti-feminist transantagonists include cis people of every description, but TERFs have sympathizers and fellow travelers of many sorts and a core membership that consists entirely of 1995’s idea of what a feminist looks like.

This politics of disgust gives TERFs a few other attributes in common that act as a sort of funhouse mirror for Abrahamic bigotry. TERFs are major proponents of the idea of “gold-star lesbians,” who have never had sexual relations with people lacking vulvas, as a higher order of sexual partner for women to seek to be and bed. Many go so far as to exclude from gold-star status victims of sexual assault by cis men. Within this concept, even unwanted contact with a penis is enough to sully a lesbian’s gold-star purity. In much the same way, many non-feminist communities refuse to regard sex between women as “real,” treat as “virgins” anyone who hasn’t had a sexual encounter with a man, and also regard victims of sexual assault by men as the same level of “tainted” as those who have consensual sex with men, making the “gold-star lesbian” concept distinguishable from Christian purity culture in its trappings and rationalizations only. Similar disdain flows from most TERFs to sex workers, whom they nigh-universally view as women exploited by men even if they do not accept male clients, causing enormous overlap between TERFs and sex-worker-exclusive radical feminists (SWERFs). The fact that trans women are overrepresented among sex workers due to exclusion from other economic sectors is not coincidental.

The TERFs’ most important distinguishing factor, though, isn’t what they do. It’s what they don’t do. TERF organizations and eminent figures tend to be wholly devoted to antagonizing and harassing trans women. Despite their ideology forming out of the premises and thoughts of a long-replaced school of feminism, TERF organizations do not promote efforts to get women into corporate boardrooms, oppose misogynist dress codes, or pursue any of second-wave feminism’s other goals. Instead, they concentrate on getting transantagonistic laws ratified wherever they can, form alliances with the Christofascist right on the basis of shared hatred of trans women, produce documents that the Christofacists can then hold up as “proof” their positions have feminist adherents, and promote right-wing transmisogyny alongside their own. Most prominent TERFs have university or similar appointments and have been able to leverage these positions into much more exposure for their ideas, becoming the backbone of anti-trans efforts all over the Anglophone world despite being vastly outnumbered by non-feminist bigots. Individual, particularly famous TERFs also spend their free time outing, doxxing, and generally terrorizing individual transgender women and girls they discover online, going so far as to call our employers, school officials, and parents, and celebrating when this sudden, highly organized hate drives us to social withdrawal or suicide. All the while, they complain that only a small and decreasing fraction of the big names in feminism proper share their views, leaving the TERFs and especially their famous individuals increasingly known for nothing but their virulent bigotry. If this sounds like the modus operandi of the “alt-right,” that’s because it is.

We both know you never sacked Rome.

In this way, the TERFs are both familiar and alien. The base of their ideology is very different from what Christofascists and their equivalents elsewhere in the world’s religious landscape use to justify targeting transgender people (mostly women, mostly women of color) for legalized discrimination, abuse, and violence, but the end result is the same. TERFs and Christofascists explicitly disagree on many issues, but because TERFs have little to no enthusiasm for any aspect of their ideology other than their hatred for transgender women, the two groups work together more consistently than TERFs do with actual feminists. The two groups share an abject failure to examine their own tenets in light of constantly emerging information on the nature of gender (among other topics) from biology, psychology, and sociology, that makes them more natural allies than either group is with proper third-wave feminists. It remains useful, however, to recognize the TERF for the distinct species of bigot she is. Even if the end product isn’t terribly different from and is indeed adulterated with Christian thoughts about immutable God-given bodies and rigid gender roles without admitting it, such a radically divergent path to this same destination requires different tools to address. In particular, using “TERF” to refer to every transantagonist, rather than those described above, reduces the utility of a precise term and complicates future conversations. In every war, it is vital that we know our enemies, and that means naming them accurately.

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What’s in a TERF?

13 thoughts on “What’s in a TERF?

    1. 1.1

      I am not aware of such accounts, though it would indeed be interesting to find one. Some famous TERFs occasionally identify as non-binary, but given their ideology it’s hard to know whether this is a performative statement about “gender abolition” or their genuine sense of themselves.

  1. 2

    I’ve been contemplating writing a piece on two groups of creeps fucking up the LGBTQIA communities that both emerged from economically privileged white backgrounds – TERFs and NAMBLA types. Pedos are extremely quick to exploit any situation where they can find an angle and they entrenched themselves in cis-male gay activism very early on. May have gotten a bit quieter, but their influence can still be seen all over the place. I don’t know if I have the gumption to do the research tho, because yuck.

        1. Indeed. This word is much more useful with its definition precise. I think the issue is that most folks I run with encounter TERFs more often than other kinds of transmisogynist, because the other kinds tend to have all sorts of other unpleasant views that get them weeded out of our company first. Between that and the utility of a one-syllable word, I’m not surprised that “transmisogynist = TERF” has been a viable heuristic for some.

  2. 3

    From what I can gather, TERFs are mostly part of the elusive “man-hating feminists” group. Their main point of contention is that they don’t recognize trans-women’s womanhood. They believe they are talking to “a man” so they immediately reject “him” on a gender-basis, as they view men as the enemy at all points.

    Reading the comments of this thing I saw a TERF fighting a trans-woman, criticizing the trans-woman’s “male privilege”. The face-palm broke my nose.

    1. 3.1

      All true, and Feminist Current is a den of TERFery like few others. As before, though, as much as they hate men, they hate trans women more. It’s us they’re driving to self-harm, after all.

      1. I think they hate us both equally, since they don’t seem capable of understanding the difference. I just happen to be insulated by my (actually real) male privilege. For all their scorn they are quite powerless to harm most men in any meaningful way so they focus on the more vulnerable target. It’s testament of their cowardice.

        This seems to be an offshoot of the “us vs them” mentality that I’ve seen permeating some (usually) liberal movements. Failure to recognize a trans-person’s real gender is on itself no reason to harass and destroy them. They think all men are dangerous and since, in their silly little minds, “Trans-woman=Man” they view them as dangerous as well.

        It’s like a matryoshka of wrongness.

        1. The difference in power, and similar difference in their actions, makes me not find the idea of TERFs hating us and some other category equally to be terribly useful. Whether this is the right interpretation or not, insisting on a “they hate equally” rhetorical presentation implies that they also take action equally and just happen to succeed more often against trans women, which is flatly untrue. Their obsession is very clearly focused; after all, it’s in the name.

          1. Yeah, sorry. I’m just trying to figure out where the hell does this nonsense [ableist word substituted] come from in hopes of perhaps find a compelling argument to make them either acknowledge trans-women’s gender or, at the very, keep thinking they are fake, just don’t harass them.

            Maybe get them to turn their guns back at men, I don’t know.

            I just can’t understand why on earth they care so much about people being “fake women”, since they themselves presume to challenge the gender binary. What does it matter to them? Biological gender doesn’t imply anything about the strength, intelligence, ethics, capacity or any of the important parts of an individual. At least that’s what Second Wave Feminism promotes.

            So far, the only “hope” I’ve seen (and this is very callous) is the fact that, being mostly Second Wave Feminists, TERFs skew a bit old, so they may not be a problem within a decade or two. Their numbers can only dwindle.

            Provide shelter for their targets while we run out the clock on them. Keep them safe until the problem “solves” itself. It’s not ideal but other than that, I’ve got nothing useful to suggest. :/

          2. The corrections they need to make are manifold. One angle is attacking their hostility to all things femme by getting them to accept the third wave of feminism. This undermines the rest of their ideology fairly thoroughly. After that, it’s altering their understanding of gender to remove its essentialism, which then cuts off their ability to target trans women at the knees.

            They see the fight against patriarchy as very close to an actual war, and trans women as spies for the other side whom real feminists are, incomprehensibly, not just allowing but encouraging. It’s not hard to understand how this boatload of incorrect premises leads to this behavior.

            Unfortunately, because essentialist notions of gender are extremely common and encouraged by lots of cultural institutions and trans women are widely reviled, it’s easy for TERFs to recruit other people into their hate group. Their power will shrink, but they won’t simply blow into the wind. They will eventually be replaced mostly with right-wing anti-trans bigots who keep using TERF arguments wherever they fit.

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