Into the Heart of TERFness

TERFs hatred of trans women isn’t just academic, it’s something more sinister.

Photo by Fares Hamouche on Unsplash

Do you know what a TERF is? I’m going to assume that since you clicked on this article, you probably do, but just in case: ‘TERF’ stands for ‘Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist’(1). If you asked a TERF what they believe, they’d probably tell you (if they were feeling patient enough to explain) any one of the following things: that trans women(2) (which they refer to as trans-identified males or TIMs, similarity to ‘Tim’ intentional) are men who are sexually aroused by the thought of themselves as women; that trans women are men who only wish to pretend to be women to invade women’s spaces(3); that trans women perform exaggerated stereotypes of femininity as a kind of fetish(4); and that trans men (which they refer to as trans-identified females or TIFs) either don’t exist, or are confused butch lesbians, or are traitors to the female gender.

As you may have guessed from the name, TERFs are the sad stepchildren of second-wave feminism(5). At some point, however, TERFs decided the biggest threat to justice in our time wasn’t the patriarchal oppression we’re all steeped in, but a trans woman trying to pee near us. Why? I honestly have no idea. TERF ideology predates me and probably you, too, since it first reared its ugly head all the way back in the 1970s when lesbian groups began voting to exclude trans women. I can tell you, however, that the term ‘TERF’ first appeared in 2008, in a series of blog posts by freelance writer Viv Smythe(6). Since then, it has grown to the point that some TERFs themselves disavow the label, preferring instead to be known as “Gender Critical” or GC. In fact, this label has gotten such cachet that it lends itself to the name of Reddit’s largest TERF subreddit, which bills itself as “Reddit’s most active feminist community”. By what metric, I wonder.

Having read the previous two paragraphs, you may glean two things: 1. That I have spent a lot a lot a lot of time reading TERF rhetoric on the internet, and 2. That the typical TERF’s understanding of womanhood (both trans and cis) is dangerously warped. And you’d be correct on both counts, but be careful, because there’s something far more sinister afoot. TERFs don’t just misunderstand womanhood. They misunderstand themselves. After having subjected myself to an unreal amount of TERF posts courtesy of Reddit, Tumblr, and Twitter, I am forced to conclude that a large number of TERFs are themselves experiencing gender dysphoria.

In my extremely nonscientific survey of TERF posts, I identified two themes. One: The assertion that trans women are aroused by pretending to be women as a kind of sexual fetish, which ignores how scary and painful it is to be a woman; and two: that trans men are somehow betraying womanhood by transitioning. Let’s tackle the idea of womanhood-as-sexual-fetish first, but let’s ignore all the nasty shit they throw at trans women and instead zero in on how they view cis women, which is far more revealing. TERFs swear up and down that they view womanhood as divine, sacred; that women create life; that womanhood must be protected at all costs. Surely someone who believed these things would find some sort of joy in being female, a divine life-giver; but to hear them talk, being a woman is a nightmarish gauntlet. While it is true that having a female-presenting body does expose you to danger, in TERFland, this is taken to a horrifying extreme. Women are constantly under threat from men, from other women, from their own bodies. Every minute spent as a woman is a minute spent dissected, an object, totally divorced from one’s own agency, with no control over one’s own personhood. Lesbian TERFs will tell you that lesbian sex is a sacred act, but there is no joy, no celebration of themselves as sexual beings. To the TERF, their body isn’t their own, it is a weak point to be constantly guarded against. Femininity isn’t a joy, it is pain; a female-presenting body is a prison to be suffered in. Now where have I heard “I’m trapped in a body I resent” before… hmm.

Next, trans males as gender traitors. I can’t help but be reminded of ex-gay rhetoric here (funny how often TERF logic intersects with evangelical Christianity… but that’s a blog post for another time): obviously we all want to be gay, we just have to resist the urge. Similarly, TERFs view trans men as either wayward sisters confused by the patriarchy, or gender traitors trying to escape their oppression (because as we all know, being a woman is alienating and scary). Ask a TERF what the harm is in simply letting a trans man transition, and they’ll tell you a litany of side effects caused by hormones and surgery. They’ll probably even give names of individuals who have experienced complications from transition. I’m just saying, I’ve never in my life met a person who knew so many precise details of medically transitioning who turned out, down the line, to be completely cis. I’m just saying. Many TERFs are also what’s known as GNC or Gender Non-Conforming: women who don’t wear makeup or dresses or act “feminine”. Now, you could argue that the existence of that term reinforces the very stereotypes that they insist trans women made up as part of a sexual fetish. In fact, I’m going to tell you that the existence of that term reinforces the very stereotypes that they insist trans women made up as part of a sexual fetish. There is nothing wrong with being a woman who doesn’t wear makeup or dresses. In fact, most of the women I know don’t wear makeup or dresses. Strangely, however, none of the women I know feel the need to tell the world about how doing so makes them Gender Non-Conforming Wombyn, they just get on with their lives barefaced and in jeans. It’s almost like they don’t feel the need to reassert at every opportunity just how female they are, because nobody would assume that they weren’t, and nobody cares. GNC TERFs, who are you trying to convince here?

But to me, the most damning evidence of all is the way that TERFs just cannot shut up. You might think that a person who sees a group of people doing something they dislike would perhaps make a few disparaging comments and then move on (in an ideal world they’d just be quiet but, as we all know, that is not the world we inhabit), but this is not the case in TERFland. In fact, the TE- part of TERF seems to have completely subsumed the -RF portion, and what’s left is functionally indistinguishable from the hysterical rage regular old patriarchal Christianity dishes out at gay people. In fact, if you’ve read enough coming-out stories of gay men, a familiar narrative emerges: I acted like a homophobe because I was too ashamed to admit that I was gay. TERFs, no cis people care about trans people as much as you care about trans people. The amount of time you devote to hating them goes way beyond an intellectual disagreement. It is personal.

  1. Some TERFs believe that TERF is a slur used to silence women. They are wrong. Feminist-Appropriating Reactionary Transphobe or FART, though, now THERE’S a slur!
  2. They call this “autogynephilia”, a term which has its roots in since-discredited gender theory, but which has taken hold in the darker parts of the internet, because of course it has.
  3. Yes, the bathroom laws. Why they think men would ever feel the need to disguise themselves as women to invade women’s spaces is beyond me, since men seem more than capable of doing that on their own.
  4. Trans women, like cis women, naturally run the gamut of gender expression from femme to masc. I’m sure you can imagine what TERFs think of butch trans lesbians. It’s not kind.
  5. Second-wave feminism is a philosophy which views society as fundamentally rooted in patriarchal oppression and which seeks not only to eliminate male privilege but to radically reorder society in a way that completely eliminates any sort of genital-based difference between the sexes.
  6. Viv Smythe is not a TERF. I checked.

Essayist, former scientist, trans woman. Striving for actionable methods of peaceful revolution — relationships, community, mutual aid, subsistence, science.

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