I’ve been thinking about this topic to the point of obsession: the subgroup of the women’s rights movement called Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) and what seems like their strange hatred for transgender people. Maybe it’s because, the more I think about it, the more trans equality seems like the civil rights issue of our time. Maybe it’s because TERFs keep calling me a men’s rights activist.
Maybe it has less to do with the TERFs than it does with me – but I’ll get to that.
First, I’ve had a hell of a time trying to figure out who the TERFs are, and I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned.
TERFS ARE as radical as their name implies, and their membership includes some of feminism’s leading figures. Germaine Greer, author of The Female Unich, has described trans women (those born male) as “men who mutilate themselves and are given passage as statutory female.” Janice Raymond and Cathy Brennan – who has allegedly outed trans youth – are other prominent TERFs. A notorious YouTube video that went viral before being banned from social media platforms is fairly representative of TERF rhetoric – with ominous background music it displays a series of what it says are “violent and predatory men” who have abused women while dressed in women’s clothing; one website that hosts the video offers to explain “why those who identify as transwomen and transvestites get a sexual thrill from wearing women’s clothes.”
To be fair, transgender people and their allies have lashed out at feminists and women. The film Tangerine was criticized by both women and mainstream critics for a bizarre scene where a trans woman beats a cis woman, seemingly for laughs (full disclosure: I haven’t seen it). There’s a TERF cottage industry of websites that curate aggressive tweets and other messages from the trans community (I’m not linking to those here). It’s like Isreal and Palestine; there are both cis and trans people insisting the other side fired the first shot, each insisting the other side apologize first. (By the way, TERFs are said to hate being called TERFs – I use the term reluctantly for lack of a better alternative).
Luckily, calmer heads seem to prevail in both camps. NOW has embraced transgender women as women, stating, “equality is equality.” Gloria Steinem has publicly embraced the trans community. And women are more supportive of trans rights than men are, according to years‘ worth of polls. One group of feminists circulated an online petition calling for the Southern Poverty Law Center to monitor Brennan’s organization Gender Identity Watch as a hate group; the petition accused Brennan of outing transgender people and critics by publishing their personal information online and received 9,000 signatures before being closed.
That doesn’t stop TERFs, though. At their most galling, they seem to be in denial about how hard it is to be trans in America. “Young biological females are the most oppressed class of human beings,” one cis woman told me on Twitter. That’s a hard claim to accept – by modest estimates 66% of trans people are sexually abused during their lives, putting them at statistically greater risk than cis women. Homicides against members of the LGBTQ community have been declining for years – except they’ve been rising to record highs for the trans community, with black transgender people at greatest risk. And transgender people are at high risk for depression, intense shame and suicide.
”I was ashamed of myself, my identity, my desires, my inner person. They crucify people like me. It would have been nice to know that I wasn’t a freak and that there were others like me. But when they asked me what was my problem in school they always assumed I was just a bad kid. Little did they realize I couldn’t stand myself. And hated what I was. I felt I needed to be bad to be respected and left alone.”-Unnamed, Reported to Protect FORGE
It goes on. TERFs often role their eyes at these statistics – as if trans people use them as a get out of jail free card – or twist them to fit their ideology. It’s frustrating – and it made me want prove the TERFs wrong.
THE CRUELEST TERF line might be the “bathroom myth” – the claim that transgender women (TW) will go on a spree of rape and sexual assault if allowed to use women’s bathrooms. In this TERFs agree with the Republican party – strange bedfellows. The trouble is, claims that TW are already assaulting cis women in bathrooms are completely false: 18 states and 200 municipalities already allow transgender people in the restroom of their choice, without a single reported incident. Remember that YouTube video of alleged TW attacking women? The person whose face made the rounds online is Canadian and didn’t exploit any American laws.
Some women talk about a need to maintain “safe spaces,” and I’m actually sympathetic to that idea. However, it ultimately rests on the assumption that TW are strange “others” and not people who can be embraced. TERF rhetoric on this issue is also blind to how important restroom equality is to the trans community. Imagine being a TW – your choices may come down to being mocked in the men’s room or yelled at in the women’s room. More fundamentally, exclusionary policies send a message to transgender people that society not only considers them a threat but rejects their gender identity. It’s no wonder that banning transgender people from the right bathroom has been linked to higher suicide rates among trans teenagers. Most trans adults say they’ve experienced serious problems like dehydration because they weren’t comfortable using a bathroom; a quarter have had problems at work related to bathroom access that in some cases cost them their jobs (It’s hard for me to imagine how humiliating it would be to have to argue with my boss about going to the bathroom).
So restroom equality hasn’t hurt a single cis woman, but it’s literally killing teenagers. At the moment 44 anti-trans bills are up for debate in states across the country, making 2016 the most politically hostle year for trans peiple in history.
One particularly regressive set of bills just introduced in Kansas makes it clear that transgender students are a threat:
Allowing students to use restrooms, locker rooms and showers that are reserved for students of a different sex will create potential embarrassment, shame, and psychological injury to students.
The bills, like others across the country, state that being male or female is determined at birth, based on chromosomes – effectively excluding trans people. The bills also impose a “bounty” on transgender students caught in the wrong restroom by allowing cis students to sue the institution operating the bathroom for up to $2,500.
THINK FOR A MOMENT about some of the rhetoric we’ve seen so far – bills assuming mere exposure to a transgender person will cause psychological harm; the description of trans women as “violent and predatory men.”
Imagine if politicians and members of the public were saturating social media, the news and daily conversation with this rhetoric – and they were talking about black people. Now imagine there was a wave of black people being murdered and beaten across the country. Well that actually happened, and it played a role in the creation of America’s hate crime laws, as well as its cultural prohibitions against bigoted language.
Now imagine the exact same thing is happening to some Americans now. Despite the small size of the trans community its members are victims of 17% of hate crimes befalling LGBTQ people; even worse, 50% of LGBTQ people killed in hate crimes are transgender. The majority of LGBTQ hate crime victims are trans people of color.
Think again about the ugliness of some of the TERF rhetoric and consider this: a recent landmark study by Project FORGE found an “anomaly” in which 29% of transgender sexual assault survivors were attacked by women, a shockingly high rate considering women are thought to be responsible for only about one percent of sexual assaults in the general community.
A few notes on this: The FORGE data says that women were involved in 29% of assaults, not that 29% of assailants were women – a key difference, as women were sometimes reported to be part of group attacks. And some recent studies put the sexual assault rate for women much higher. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to verify FORGE’s number as very few studies specifically break down assault rates by assailant gender (if there’s any reliable data on transgender people assaulting women, by the way, I haven’t seen it – please send it my way).
Still, if a significant number of women are attacking transgender people, shouldn’t that give TERFs pause before calling them “rapists”? Since a significant number of people are attacking transgender people, shouldn’t that give all of us pause?
IF YOU’RE STILL WITH ME I’m almost ready to draw some conclusions and put away a bit of my anger towards TERFs. I just want to quickly cover a few more dynamics in the TERF/ transgender dynamic. They’re subtle and draw heavily on both feminist theory and female experience, so it might seem obnoxious for a cis guy to write about them. I can only say I’m interested, because this stuff helps me understand what’s happening to the trans community as well as – corny as this might sound – the human experience.
Issue: Who Took My Body? Who Took My Everything?
Just read and see if you can make sense of this TERF logic:
However, when it comes to transgender males, men who wish to call themselves women – or more to the point want us to call them women – the story is very different. If we say no to the appropriation of our name, our bodies, our struggle, it is we women who are shamed. We’re being re-named: TERF, cis, transphobe. We’re being re-named by men who wish to try on the costume ‘woman’; they think it doesn’t fit us any more, us no-sayers are not the pliable girls of their dreams, and we must share.
“The appropriation of our name, our bodies, our struggle” – transgender people are body snatchers, apparently.
I can’t help but think of the debate over gay marriage – all those conservatives who shouted that if gay people could marry it would undermine their traditional families. There’s no logic to it – it’s the prioritization of abstract values over living, breathing humans. Is there any clear way to imagine transgender people making this woman less free?
Issue: They’re Taking Our Power
Hillary Clinton, to the surprise of many, has failed to capture the support of young women – and in that regard she might have something in common with TERFs.
Like Clinton, the leading TERFs tend to be older women who have been influential for years, if not decades. So the following observation about young voters, made by a Democratic pollster, might hold significance for feminists as well: Millenial women are “the most tolerant cohort we’ve ever had in our country, by far… Their change agenda is really around things like gay or transgender candidates.” Young women, it’s being suggested, are less interested in the traditional goals of feminism and more interested in equality for transgender people – could this be upsetting TERFs?
I also wonder whether transgender people are seen as a threat by some powerful feminist leaders. After all, if women become men they’re no longer women; to TERFs they’re longer part of the feminist movement. Perhaps TERF intolerance is partially due to a desire among older figures – Germaine Greene, Janice Raymond – to retain influence.
Issue: They’re Taking Our Women
Google “cotton ceiling” and you’ll get page after page of TERFs sharing their finest, angriest screeds. What is this horrible concept? The cotton ceiling is a term coined to describe “the experiences queer trans women have with simultaneous social inclusion and sexual exclusion within the broader queer women’s communities.”
In other words, some female transgender people (born with male equipment but female by gender) feel that lesbians (who they would theoretically date or hook up with) talk a good game socially but aren’t actually interested in romance. Fair enough, right?
But TERFs are terrified of the cotton ceiling.
“We must say yes to men,” one TERF writes of the demands she feels transgender people place on her [note: TERFs misgender transgender people and refer to transgender women as men]. “Lesbians say yes to men in your beds.” Their reaction is so extreme that when Planned Parenthood – that woman-hating organization – held a workshop on the cotton ceiling, a petition went out saying female transgender participants “will discuss and strategize ways to ‘overcome’ women’s objections to these participants sexual advances.” (What did participants really discuss?: “Would it really surprise you to know that what they talked about was body image and shame?”)
Now I feel uncomfortable going here, but many TERFs are lesbians. Is it possible they’re worried trans women are stealing eligible partners? It would help explain Greer’s strangely specific language about trans women’s anatomies (specifically that they don’t know what it’s like to be real women because they don’t have “big, hairy, smelly vaginas”: factually incorrect).
More than enough said on that.
Issue: They’re taking our children
Is it me, or is gender identity just not what it used to be? We’ve always assumed that the feeling of being born in the wrong body is more or less innate, but more and more I think gender identity is fluid. And now there’s a data to back me up: a March survey found that over a third of 13-20 year olds believe gender doesn’t identify people as much as it used to, with a majority saying they know someone who goes by a gender-neutral pronoun and most buying clothing designed for the opposite cis gender (they were also strongly in favor of restroom equality). It might be hard to imagine now, but maybe we’re heading towards a moment where we realize we’re all a bit trans.
Are the TERFs worried about losing women to this trend – or are they worried they might be transgender themselves?
Wait, am I worried about that too?
WHY AM I SO eager to criticize TERFs? They don’t make it hard – but if I justify being cruel to them I’m no different than they are when they justify being cruel to transgender people (“They started it”).
More interestingly, why have I focused my attention on female, and not male, transgender people? Do I feel akin to them? Even related?
Maybe all of us – TERFs, transgender people and myself included – are struggling in this new world of transgender visibility. There are lots of things I can’t become – African American, for example – but it’s within the realm of possibility for me to become transgender, to become a woman. And that means I need to take a hard look at what it really means for me to be a man – something that can only be defined in relation to women, trans and cis. The TERFs must redefine themselves too, and they hate it. Transgender people are painfully aware that they must do this; it’s their struggle to survive.
Maybe it’s a luxury I have as a cis man, but I don’t hate it. An incredible sense of connectivity can come from defining yourself in relation to others. We are all part of each others’ world.
In a sense, then, this essay is an olive branch to the TERFs – because I’d be as lost without people like them as they’d be without people like me. The Other is all we have to define ourselves by, and we have the ability to embrace that.
But please, ladies, try to be nice.
I’m 80% sure I got half of this wrong. Correct me in the comments section and I’ll include your feedback in a future post.