It’s Time For The Feminist Movement To Leave TERFs Behind
Illustration by Ki Chin
Content warning: This article discusses and mentions transphobic harassment and violence.
Using feminism to justify anti-trans sentiment is nothing new — it’s been a tactic since the origin of radical feminism in the 1960s and 70s. What is new is the rise in platforming transphobic rhetoric in Canadian mainstream media. Gender-critical feminism usually doesn’t have the same traction here in Canada as it does in the UK, but three published pieces from last year are proving otherwise.
On Oct. 15, 2021 an op-ed was published in the Toronto Star by columnist Rosie DiManno. In it, she recycled a classic transphobic talking point by claiming that gender-neutral language in healthcare is resulting in the “erasure of women.” This is untrue, of course. As journalist Mel Woods wrote in Xtra, “trans rights do not come at the expense of cis women’s rights.” DiManno’s argument is a tired one that has been made, and disproven, many times before. Transphobes often use a strategy called “manufacturing outrage” where they take a small, specific event (like using gender-neutral language in healthcare) and blow it out of proportion to justify transphobia (trans women are “erasing” cis women).
A week later, another op-ed was published, arguing that trans activism was coming at the expense of women. The piece, authored by Jessica Triff, a trans woman, argued that trans woman should only be allowed to be called a woman once they have conformed to stereotypical standards of femininity — a standard that not even cis women adhere to. In other words, Triff called for the policing of trans women’s gender identities and opposed their right to self-identification unless they can clear the “right” hurdles.
The last piece, published soon after Triff, was a so-called “investigative” piece (there was little investigation involved) by CTV News was about the supposed “worrying increase” of children seeking gender-affirming healthcare. It was a stunning example of poor journalism; the piece used two rare cases of individuals who de-transitioned to argue that Canadian youths should not be able to access trans-affirming healthcare.
While de-transitioning does happen, it’s much rarer than the media portrays, and should not be wielded as an oppressive tool to stop children and youth from getting gender-affirming healthcare — something that has been proven to reduce suicide ideation and attempts in trans people. De-transitioning isn’t a valid reason to prevent trans people from accessing gender-affirming healthcare — gender is fluid and can change over time. Everyone’s journey of self-actualization is different and deserving of support.
If these recent pieces have illustrated anything, it’s that anti-trans rhetoric is still alive and well in Canadian media, and the feminist movement at large. And it must be rooted out, or at the very least, be de-platformed in Canadian news media.
Trans-exclusionary Radical Feminism: An Introduction
Feminism is a very broad term. It’s like a tree trunk with many branches, with radical feminism only being one such branch. Radical feminism arose during the second-wave feminism movement in the 1960s in opposition to liberal feminism, a perspective that believes that society can be reformed. Radical feminists do not believe in reformation — they believe that society must be radically restructured for women to achieve liberation. And trans-exclusionary radical feminism is an even smaller twig of the radical feminism branch.
The term TERF (adherents of trans-exclusionary radical feminism) was first introduced in 2008 by feminist blogger Viv Smythe in order to distinguish between radical feminists who were anti-trans from those who weren’t. Most TERFs now consider the term a slur, levelling accusations of misogyny against users of the word. The rest of the feminist community simply see it as a label to help them identify who is or isn’t transphobic. In response, TERFs have opted to call themselves “gender-critical feminists” or “RadFems.”
TERFs attempts to boil womanhood down to a singular experience ignores intersectionality entirely. It erases the unique gender experience of Black women, Indigenous women, women of colour, disabled women, financially insecure women, and any other woman who is not white and cisgender. There is no universal experience of womanhood. It is much more complex.
TERFs don’t believe they are transphobes or that they are doing anything wrong. They don’t have anything against trans people — they’re just “concerned.” They’re concerned about the “safety” of women’s washrooms. They’re concerned about youths transitioning “too early”. They’re concerned that trans women are “taking over cis women’s spaces”. They’re concerned.
These concerns are dog-whistles — subtle political messages that are intended for a particular group. In this case, the particular group is transphobes. Trans-inclusive feminists can recognize these dog whistles for what they are, but for those who aren’t as well-versed in TERF rhetoric, these phrases seem benign and good-natured.
If you read between the lines, these concerns show their true colours: that TERFs believe that trans women should not be allowed in women’s washrooms because they aren’t real women. Trans youths should not be allowed to transition because they aren’t really trans, they’re just confused. Trans women should not be allowed in women’s spaces because they are not women. Trans women are a threat to cis women.
TERF Rhetoric is Dangerous
Trans-exclusionary radical feminism is arguably the most reductive, restrictive approach to feminism. The phrase TERF in and of itself is an oxymoron — how can a group advocating for equality also promote exclusion?
Broadly speaking, TERFs don’t view trans people as they are. They believe that the “trans agenda” is taking away women’s rights and that trans women are depriving them of what feminism has worked so hard to accomplish. TERFs go so far as to oppose (and organize against) transgender rights in their effort to exclude trans women from women’s spaces and organizations.
In addition, TERFs view trans women and trans men very differently: they believe that trans women are sexual deviants with internalized homophobia who transition so they can have sex with women without identifying as lesbians, and they believe that trans men have internalized misogyny to the point where they choose to become men to avoid gendered oppression.
Ilustration by Ki Chin
Bioessentialism and transphobia
Much of the TERF worldview boils down to a concept called “biological essentialism.” That is, the idea that there are fixed, unalterable qualities of each “sex.” It reduces people down to their biological parts — the uterus, the vagina, the penis. Conveniently, this usually means male and female, and excludes those outside the sex binary altogether.
TERFs use bioessentialism to reduce womanhood down to particular sex-based experiences shared by cis women, like menstruation. They use this made-up criteria to exclude trans women from womanhood. They argue that, since trans women can’t relate to their narrow experience of womanhood, their struggles should not be a part of the feminist conversation.
If this sounds contrary to feminism’s goal of liberating women from the constraints of patriarchy, that’s because it is. TERFs are more concerned with policing women’s gender identities than they are with fighting for gender liberation.
By trying to sort people into neat, tidy identity boxes, TERFs are fighting a losing battle. In fact, the battle is already lost. Humans are incredibly complex — the harder you try to box us in, the more we spill out.
Bioessentialism is deeply rooted in both colonialism and white supremacy. It is so deeply rooted, that it is impossible to separate it from the two. Bioessentialism and other oppressive colonial gender practices were wielded by colonizers to impose a specific understanding of sex and gender onto the Indigenous people they displaced. They attempted to erase Indigenous peoples’ concepts of gender alongside their traditions, familial bonds, and cultures.
By continuing the legacy of this oppressive practice and dismissing any gender and sex categories that don’t comply with the rigid Eurocentric gender binary, TERFs are aligning themselves with white supremacy. As Judith Butler wrote in an op-ed for The Guardian (also around October 2021), anti-gender movements are a form of fascism and “the time for anti-fascist solidarity is now.”
TERFs and the far-right
Although the word “radical” is in their name, TERFs have more in common with conservatives than they do with any feminist activists. Trans-exclusionary radical feminists have a long history of allying with anti-feminist causes to deny trans people their intrinsic human rights.
In the U.S., the Women’s Liberation Front teamed up with conservative political groups to push for the banning of trans-affirming medical care for transgender youth in South Dakota. In Canada, CAWSBAR, one of Canada’s largest TERF groups, launched a campaign to oppose Bill C-6 with other right-wing groups, a bill that would make it illegal to force queer individuals to undergo conversion therapy.
Fighting against trans rights is not only un-feminist, but inhumane. Transphobia has real-world consequences and is actively harmful. A recent report from Stats Canada shows that trans Canadians are more likely to have mental health issues and struggle with suicide ideation because of discrimination and harassment.
Most horrifying, trans people are twice as likely to attempt suicide than cis people and non-trans members of the queer community. Trans-exclusionary radical feminism not only invalidates and marginalizes trans and gender-non-conforming people, but it also directly harms them.
Trans women are women
Feminism is, at its core, about liberation from patriarchy. Feminists should be interested in exploring womanhood and testing its boundaries, not restricting it. There is no space for transphobia, gender policing, or bioessentialism in the feminist movement. That TERFs still feel comfortable in the feminist movements means that feminists need to work harder to make them unwelcome. It is equally concerning that the anti-trans movement appears to be getting traction again in mainstream media. There is work to be done here.
Let me be perfectly clear: the struggle for trans liberation is part of the feminist struggle for liberation. We cannot have one without the other. We aren’t free until we’re all free — every single one of us.
About the Author: Eleni Vlahiotis is a UBC graduate student with a background in social justice and feminist media studies.
Shameless practices a feminism that is rooted in a core belief of self-determination and liberation of all trans people. We support the rights and dignity of all people of marginalized genders. This is not a space to debate or challenge people’s existence, and we as an organization, support the views of this writer.