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In recent years, a new phrase has entered the conversation around trans rights: TERF. This phrase, which stands for trans exclusionary radical feminist, is used to describe women who identify as feminists but exclude the rights of transgender people — particularly transgender women — from their principles and beliefs. This is an extremely harmful way of thinking and speaking and can seriously impact how transgender people, trans women especially, are seen and treated in society.

Source: Rowan Ellis/Youtube

What is the ideology of a “TERF”?

Where mainstream feminism seeks to illuminate, challenge, and alleviate the unique issues that face women, TERFs essentially deny the existence of transgender women. Not only are trans people excluded from these conversations, but this often coincides with the perpetuation of harmful myths about trans women being a danger in women’s spaces. These views have gone beyond regressive conversations, and now they are opposing trans rights legislation like the US Equality Act

While the phrase has gained more traction over the past few years, the term was coined in 2008 by activist and writer Viv Smythe, though she notes that she merely popularized the idea via her blog. She first noticed the trend of transphobia in British media. “Due to a short series of blog posts from 2008, I have retrospectively been credited as the coiner of the acronym “TERF” (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists),” she wrote in an article for The Guardian. Smythe continued that the acronym has since been “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.”

These people will often self-identify as “gender-critical,” meaning they maintain that sex is real and gender is something determined by biology alone. One of the most high-profile figures to be labeled a TERF is ‘Harry Potter’ author J.K. Rowling who offered her Support to British researcher Maya Forstater when her contract was not renewed over tweets that a high court ruled “gender-critical”, including the belief that “men cannot change into women.” Rowling has since posted several tweets echoing a similar sentiment, including one in which she criticized the phrase “people who menstruate.”

Why have TERFs aligned with conservatives?

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” the ancient proverb says. Such has been the case with so-called gender-critical feminists, conservative commentators, and politicians. Where typically the rigidity of evangelical Christianity would clash with the free-thinking ideals of traditional feminism, TERFs have now aligned themselves with Christian and conservative groups against the common “enemy” that they view as trans people. This conflation of ideas and ostensible common cause is continuing to uphold offensive stereotypes about trans people.

For example, a 2016 article by The Daily Beast noted that the controversial “bathroom bill” in North Carolina — which prevented transgender people from using the bathrooms of the gender they identified with — was “couched in the language of TERFs,” mainly the harmful accusation that transgender women are men in disguise intent on assaulting women. “Conservative religious writings likewise deny the existence of transgender people as a category,” it continued, noting that the Southern Baptist Convention said that trans people do not exist.

TERFs’ potential to influence both policy and large audiences is dangerous and real. Notably, in 2017, radical feminists from a group called Women’s Liberation Front, or WoLF, teamed up with conservative evangelical groups, Family Policy Alliance and Focus on the Family, to challenge anti-discrimination safeguarding laws for trans children in schools. Similarly, in 2019, the conservative group Heritage Foundation, known for its anti-LGBTQ beliefs, hosted a panel of feminists “from the left” who were all anti-trans.

Additionally, as Vox notes, anti-trans groups also have the power to influence the legislature, citing the example of Aimee Stephens, who sued her employer for firing her for being transgender. WoLF wrote an amicus brief that said, “Simply, Aimee Stephens is a man.”

How can these views be contained?

Not only has transphobic discourse spilled out from online and into real-life influence, but the size of the platforms that people with these views have is deeply troubling. J.K. Rowling has an audience of 14 million Twitter followers to share her harmful views with, and other conservative figures like Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson also echo these deeply transphobic views. The latter recently appeared on The Joe Rogan Experience, where they both gave credence to the view of far-right conspiracy theorist Douglas Murray who suggested that when civilizations “start collapsing, they become obsessed with gender.”

Transphobic rhetoric is often also disguised in academic debate, such is the reason why several female columnists discuss their “gender-critical” beliefs in national newspapers rather than platforming transgender people. One of the primary ways to contain this is to Support the work of grassroots movements and charities that seek to educate people and help them identify transphobic dog whistles disguised as discussion. It is encouraging to see Twitter crackdown on transphobic hate speech, but it still needs more attention. 

Moreover, even liberal media has a problem with TERFs, especially in the United Kingdom. We need more trans voices and allies on bigger platforms to have the time to speak their truth. More government intervention is also needed to ensure laws like the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill — which is being considered in at least a dozen states and would prevent schools from discussing gender and sexual orientation — do not pass or snowball into more forms of harmful legislation. 

If anti-trans groups continue to have influence and platforms, it will legitimize these views that only seek to make the lives of transgender people harder and ultimately more dangerous. The people who not only hold these views but go to extensive measures to ensure they are platformed or involved in official legislature, only help others to justify the harassment and abuse that transgender people face every day.

Where do we go from here?

The word TERF may be thrown about as a buzzword online, but the views, intentions, and actions behind these people are very dangerous, and their legitimacy in policy and politics is deeply concerning.

Although there is still much work to be done, society has made significant strides in the acceptance and protection of underrepresented groups. While there are still undoubtedly struggles, by and large, society generally doesn’t tolerate public denunciations or insults against underrepresented groups. Unless, of course, you’re commenting on trans people, their lives, and their rights. 

Phrases like “biological males” are routinely used, even by mainstream media, without consequences. Can you imagine a television host using a racial slur and getting away with it? Me either, but with trans people, it just seems like it’s open season. We know how we got to this point, but it’s time to start thinking seriously about how to de-platform those who only seek to deny the existence of transgender people and their right to a normal life.

Wynne Nowland publicly transitioned while CEO of insurance agency Bradley & Parker at age 56 and now dedicates her time to advocating for the LGBTQIA+ community.

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