Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists: Who are they and what do they believe?

In late January, President Joe Biden signed an executive order that would prove to be a societal milestone for the LGBTQ community and in particular, transgender people.

Contrasting with the Trump administration’s previous effort to define gender “as either male or female, unchangeable and determined by the genitals that a person is born with,” the Biden executive order promised legislative protection to members of the LGBTQ community.

“All persons should receive equal treatment under the law, no matter their gender identity or sexual orientation,” the executive order read.

Under such an order, trans students would be given the ability “to learn without worrying about whether they will be denied access to the restroom, the locker room or school sports.” LGBTQ individuals would also be shielded from the oppression of workplace discrimination: being “fired, demoted or mistreated because of whom they go home to or because how they dress does not conform to sex-based stereotypes.”

Biden’s signing of this executive order set off an avalanche of anti-trans rhetoric online. Claims of disempowering cisgender women – i.e. women who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth – culminated in the Twitter hashtag #BidenErasedWomen, which is still being used months later.

In late March, Twitter user @PatrioticRn responded to the issue of trans girls being allowed to participate in girls’ sports in school by seemingly dismissing the gender identities of trans girls altogether.

“If you were born a male, compete in male sports,” the user wrote at the time.

Another user, @memeste22547300, recently tweeted a meme of professional wrestler and actor John Cena dressed up as a woman, accompanied by the caption “Biden: This is my secretary of health”; such an image alludes to the transphobic notion that transgender women are simply cis men impersonating women.

Twitter user Jamey Funny (@JameyFunny) tweeted a photo of Gabrielle Ludwig, an openly transgender basketball coach at Mission College, a community college in Santa Clara, California. Funny accused Ludwig of using Mission College female athletes as “a prop for…a 50-year-old trans-identified male to live out his dream while robbing the girls of fair play in sports.”

A look at Funny’s Twitter bio reveals that Funny identifies as a gender-critical feminist, or “GC” for short.

Funny’s cover photo for their profile is an anatomical illustration of a male and female pelvis, while their current pinned tweet is a definition of the word “menstruation” that leads with the phrase “the process in a woman.”

Gender-critical feminism is an alternative name for the online subculture of TERFs – a collective of individuals who espouse anti-trans rhetoric in the name of feminism.

Who They Are

The earliest recorded usage of the term TERF, which stands for “trans exclusionary radical feminist,” goes back to the late 2000s, when freelance writer Viv Smythe was running a Feminism 101 FAQ blog. Smythe used the acronym to mark a point of differentiation in feminist discourse: “a shorthand to describe one cohort of feminists who self-identify as radical and are unwilling to recognize trans women as sisters, unlike those of us who do.”

Since then, however, TERF has evolved into both a pejorative and an ideological signifier: a slur-like word hurled by trans rights advocates and a digital name tag for those with a more exclusive stance on trans inclusivity in society. Smythe said the term has taken on a life of its own, being “weaponized at times by both those who advocate trans-inclusion in feminist/female spaces and those who push for trans-exclusion from female-only spaces.”

Ciné Julien, UCF junior and member of the student advisory board Lavender Council. (Photo courtesy Julien)

Ciné Julien, a junior at the University of Central Florida and a member of the LGBTQ-centered student advisory board Lavender Council, says feminism goes beyond the dichotomy of “cis women vs. cis men” and instead acknowledges the spectrum-like quality of gender. Julien, who identifies as nonbinary transmasculine, said including transgender people in feminist dialogue ensures that everyone is included in the conversation.

“The entire point of feminism is not for just women’s liberation and to be equal to the cisgender man,” Julien says. “The point is to reach some type of gender justice, some type of gender equity, because equality can only go so far. You want to make sure that everybody has the resources, the tools, the ability to fight for equality and equity in their space — and that’s for every gender.”

Jules Gill-Peterson, a trans historian and associate professor of gender, sexuality and women’s studies, said meaningful feminism recognizes the complexity of gender, as well as strives to reevaluate gender norms in a way that helps create a more “just, inclusive and less unequal society.” Gill-Peterson says TERFs’ interpretation of feminism fails to meet this standard because in the context of TERF-branded feminism, the societal privilege of cis women relies on the marginalization and disparagement of trans women.

What They Believe

Many TERFs today hold to the notion of sex as a biologically-based, unchangeable quality, irrespective of a person’s self-defined gender identity.

“Sex is grounded in materiality, whereas ‘gender identity’ is simply an ideology that has no grounding in science,” Women’s Liberation Front, a radical feminist nonprofit, told Vox in 2019.

However, Gill-Peterson says gender emerged primarily as a psychological category in the 1950s to describe a person’s sense of “being a man or a woman or whatever gender” and that sex itself is not the strict binary TERFs make it out to be.

“There’s really no meaningful distinction between trans people or non-trans people that can be found in biology,” Gill-Peterson says. “In terms of gender, those are just social and cultural differences. So, there might be differences in how we treat people and how we imagine people, but they’re not locatable in the body: they’re not hiding somewhere in someone’s cells or genotype or in their brain.”

Em Murphy, a UCF sophomore who identifies as nonbinary and also serves on Lavender Council, says gender identity is tied to how a person sees themself and shouldn’t be defined by a person’s sex characteristics.

“Just because you were born a certain way doesn’t mean you have to be perceived that way,” Murphy says.

Because of TERFs’ insistent emphasis of sex and dismissal of gender identity, this leads to the assumption that trans people are not the gender they claim to be. The assertion that transgender women are actually “biological males,” for example, stems from such an assumption.

“The reason many gender-critical feminists exclude transgender women from their feminism is the same reason many also make room for transgender men in women’s spaces — many gender-critical feminists do not view transgender men as real men or transgender women as real women,” Insider reporter Canela López wrote on the topic.

Abbie Rolf, a trans-inclusive mental health counselor based in Tampa Bay, said gender identity is an innate quality within every person, and the notion that trans people choose their gender is the strongest misconception embedded within TERF ideology. Moreover, Rolf says affirming the gender of trans people — using the correct personal pronouns and referring to them as their true gender — can help reduce the incidence of suicide within the trans population.

“People may choose how they express their gender,” Rolf says. “They may choose what undertakings they take to affirm it, whether that’s medical or social or legal transition, whatever their path may look like – but that’s where the choice ends. Because our gender is our perception of self, which is an intrinsic piece of our identity we don’t choose.”

Part of the framework of TERF ideology involves framing trans people as a threat or disruption to the fabric of civic life. Allowing trans people to exist in spaces that correspond with their gender, the logic goes, has the opportunity to create danger or injustice for cisgender people.

“Gender-critical propaganda is almost entirely focused on the supposed depravity of trans women, citing rare cases to paint trans women as threats to women and children,” Katelyn Burns wrote for Vox.

Such perceptions have even found legislative outlets to justify the exclusion of trans individuals from certain sectors of public life. The passage of the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act in 2016, which limited trans people’s access to public restrooms and changing facilities in North Carolina, and Arkansas’ Senate Bill 354 in March, which prevents trans women and girls in Arkansas from competing in school sports on the basis of sex-based classifications, illustrates how these perceptions of the trans community are further solidified.

Gill-Peterson says this characterization of trans people as being disruptive has no basis in reality, given the trans community’s long-standing presence in society.

“There is no disturbance to public life or to civic life because trans people have been going to the bathroom, they have been playing sports [and] they have been in the world for many decades, if not centuries, in this country,” Gill-Peterson says.

Marquis Bey from Northwestern University. (Photo courtesy Bey)

Marquis Bey, an assistant professor from Northwestern University, says any perceived disruptiveness associated with trans people is largely the product of people’s resistance to trans people’s presence and participation in public life. Additionally, Bey says most forms of societal progress, such as the abolition of slavery or the women’s liberation movement, are the result of disturbing the status quo.

“When something is wrong or in need of being transformed, it is necessary that it is disrupted,” Bey said via email.

University of Rhode Island professor Donna Hughes penned an essay earlier this year, in which she framed the broader recognition of trans identity as an affront to people’s ability to freely express their personal views.

“The ‘gender identity’ movement is canceling people’s free speech and academic freedom for anyone who doesn’t fall in line, speaks out in opposition or even calls for the right to debate,” Hughes wrote at the time.

Such a view seems to speak to an emerging perspective among TERFs in the era of cancel culture: TERFs are being marginalized from public forums for expressing contrary viewpoints on gender.

In 2019, researcher Maya Forstater, who was fired for tweeting “‘offensive and exclusionary’” language about trans-inclusive legislation and was at the center of the J.K. Rowling-endorsed hashtag #IStandWithMaya, said the dismissal of her legal case represented an erosion of “the right to freedom of belief and speech.”

“It gives judicial license for women and men who speak up for objective truth and clear debate to be subject to aggression, bullying, no-platforming and economic punishment,” Forstater told the Guardian.

Gill-Peterson says this notion creates a narrative of victimization that serves to distract from the reality that trans people are often the ones who don’t have access to major platforms that would allow for their voices to be heard.

“TERFs know that trans people are the ones being censored,” Gill-Peterson says. “We don’t have access to a voice in the mainstream media. There are not very many trans journalists employed in mainstream news outlets.”

Gill-Peterson adds “They often don’t interview trans people, and trans people are not really welcomed in publishing, other than in fiction and poetry.”

Bey said that when it comes to matters of free speech, allowing certain attributes to be open to debate, such as a person’s gender identity, can have adverse consequences because it creates the opportunity for people’s identities and lived experiences to be invalidated.

“For something to be up for debate means that it is under scrutiny or facing skepticism as to whether it should be permitted to hold truth, which has an indelibly negative effect when it concerns people’s lives and livability,” Bey said.

Their Impact on the Trans Community

Gill-Peterson says concerted efforts to marginalize trans people from public life not only endanger and destabilize trans lives, but these efforts also have the potential to backfire on cis people. She says policies based on selective access to public spaces — restrooms, schools, doctor’s offices — can be inadvertently misapplied to cis people, resulting in their own exclusion.

“There’s no reliable way to make policy based on visually looking at someone and trying to decide if they are cisgender or transgender,” Gill-Peterson says. “It’s simply impossible to do that reliably.”

Jules Gill-Peterson, author of “Histories of the Transgender Child.” (Photos from Gill-Peterson’s website)

With regard to the state of online culture, Gill-Peterson says the trans community is living in a “double-edged era” when it comes to their engagement with the internet. On the one hand, Gill-Peterson says the internet can serve as a place of community for trans people, where they can meet other trans individuals and gain access to resources. At the same time, she adds the internet can also act as a “ground zero” for contemporary TERF discourse, which often aims to discourage trans people from transitioning, as well as “make their lives more difficult, more miserable.”

Rolf says social media platforms provide TERFs with a soapbox to broadcast their views. This can create a “dogpiling” effect, Rolf says, in which other people with similar views feel encouraged to chime in with their own anti-trans perspectives. From a mental-health standpoint, Rolf says this proliferation of hostility toward trans people online can create a sense of instability that extends into their personal lives.

“Trans people are then seeing their family members, people who they thought were their friends [and] people who they thought were their co-workers jumping on these trains, and now [they’re] feeling unsafe in many aspects and facets of their lives because they’re recognizing the hatred that exists around them when people are given permission, if you will, to hold that hatred out in public,” Rolf says.

Julien says TERFs’ usage of online platforms to promote animosity toward trans people means it’s also TERFs’ responsibility to do the work of informing themselves about the harm this inflicts on the trans community.

“If you’re going to take the space to be transphobic, you also need to take the space and time to educate yourself on why that’s wrong,” Julien says.

What People Can Do

Murphy says one way people can help combat the prejudice and misinformation TERFs spread about the trans community is by making sure that trans people are given opportunities to voice their own experiences and perspectives.

“It’s important to make sure that people who don’t have a voice are getting their chance to have a voice,” Murphy says.

Gill-Peterson says anyone who is invested in the pursuit of social justice more broadly should be equally invested in the preservation of trans rights.

“You shouldn’t have to know someone to believe that they deserve respect and civil rights anyways,” Gill-Peterson says.

Rolf says it’s important for people to be mindful of the messages about trans life they publicly endorse because the impact can be life-altering for trans people.

“There’s a good chance that someone in your life might be trans,” Rolf says. “Be cautious of the hate that you are sharing because that hate can do them irreparable harm.”

Watermark reached out to Hands Across the Aisle, a coalition of “radical feminists, lesbians, Christians and conservatives” who oppose gender identity-based legislation, which it views as “the erasure of our own hard-won civil rights,” for comment; the coalition did not respond to our request.

Watermark also reached out to a number of Twitter users who either identify as TERFs and gender-critical feminists or whose content closely aligns with TERF ideology, to get their perspectives: @usa_goddess, @KeelahSalai, @BornWithOvaries, @theismisntmeism and @betsvigi9. These individuals did not respond to our request either.

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