Written and translated by Luísa Souza. Some changes were made to the article. Original at: https://transfeminismo.com/entendendo-as-terfs-a-sua-origem-seu-pensamento-e-a-sua-atuacao/
Since transgender individuals began to organize and fight for our rights and for more dignified living conditions, we have been facing many obstacles. from certain sectors of the medical community to religious fundamentalists and politically conservative organizations, many are the groups that have been mobilizing with the objective of denying the validity of trans identities and stopping us from obtaining access to essential services such as adequate medical treatment as well as attacking our rights.
The most unexpected of these groups consists of reactionary sectors of radical feminism that appropriate feminist discourse with the objective of fighting against the recognition of trans identities, legislation that benefits trans individuals and against trans activism as well.
Known as TERFs (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists), they tend to refer to themselves as “Gender Critical”, opposing the concept of gender identity and affirming that only biological sex truly matters while claiming to fight for the abolition of gender.
TERFs tend to define “men” as “adult human males” and “women” as “adult human females”. Thus, under the guise of abolishing gender they intend to tie it to arbitrary sexual characteristics (usually as chromosomes or genitals) in a strictly binary way that is not only transphobic but also goes against contemporary biology, which increasingly tends to view sex as a spectrum.
Thus, in their vision, trans people are mentally ill individuals living illusions, lies. In the TERF worldview, trans women, or “TIMs” (Trans-Identified Males) in their terminology, are a threat to women and a tool of the patriarchy, males trying to use a feminine identity to invade women’s spaces. Meanwhile, trans men, referred to as “TIFs” (Trans-Identified Females), are victims of patriarchy attempting to identify and live as men so they can escape patriarchal oppression.
But before we can understand and formulate a critique of the TERF worldview, we need to step back and look at the debate around what is a woman and what is a man.
What is a woman? What is a man?
Before we get into the answers to these questions, we must clear a misunderstanding, which is the idea that the TERF conceptualization of men and women as adult human males and females is shared by all radical feminists. In fact, there is no singular view of gender and sex shared by all radical feminists.
Radical feminism is a movement that emerged in the United States during the 60’s as part of the second wave of feminism. The ascension of the movement occurred in a context of intense social agitation that also saw the emergence of radical social movements acting on many fronts. Among those movements were student movements, black movements, indigenous movements and LGBT movements among others. These movements developed critiques with profound social implications.
Activists such as Shulamith Firestone, Carol Hanisch and Jenny Brown attempted to understand the origins of patriarchy and the oppression of women through a radical perspective, elaborating various theories that would be developed and which would generate intense disputes as both theoretical debates and second-wave activism spread through the United States and then the world.
Many questions that emerged during such debates revolve around the origins of women as a political and social class. The theoretical developments that arose out of attempts to seek answers to these questions were strongly influenced by the materialist class analysis offered by Marxists. Many adherents of the movement claimed that the political class of women was created by the patriarchy and defined by subordination to men as a class. Many also argued that patriarchal oppression was the original form of oppression, being also a model for other forms of institutionalized oppression.
Shulamith Firetone, one of the most influential thinkers and activists of the movement, argued in her book “The Dialectic of Sex” that patriarchal oppression is based around the control of the reproductive functions of women, which would mean that the oppression of women has a biological basis. She also argued that women would only be free after rising up and taking control of their reproductive functions, which according to her could only be accomplished once new technologies made it possible for reproduction to occur independently of their biological reproductive apparatus. According to her, this is a necessary condition for the end of patriarchal oppression, which would also mean the end of all distinctions between men and women.
Taking these ideas as a starting point, many TERFs have developed theories that attempt not only to deny trans identities but also the idea that trans women are oppressed by the patriarchy. According to them, the fact that trans women do not possess a “female” reproductive system would imply that we cannot be victims of patriarchal oppression, since the basis of said oppression would be biological. To deny the biological basis of said oppression is anti-materialist according to many of them.
Ironically, an analysis of the material conditions of trans women demonstrates that the absence of a “female” reproductive apparatus doesn’t protect us from being subject to diverse forms of patriarchal oppression such as discrimination in the workplace, domestic abuse and sexual assault among others.
Besides, many radical feminists that are respected and even admired by TERFs have understood that “men” and “women” are socially constructed categories and recognized trans identities as valid. American radical feminist Catharine Mckinnon, for instance, said the following about trans women: “I always thought I don’t care how someone becomes a woman or a man; it does not matter to me. It is just part of their specificity, their uniqueness, like everyone else’s. Anybody who identifies as a woman, wants to be a woman, is going around being a woman, as far as I’m concerned, is a woman.”
Mckinnon also spoke out against the hysteria surrounding the debate around trans-inclusive bathroom laws. In her words: “Many transwomen just go around being women, who knew, and suddenly, we are supposed to care that they are using the women’s bathroom. There they are in the next stall with the door shut, and we’re supposed to feel threatened. I don’t. I don’t care. By now, I aggressively don’t care.”
Another example is Andrea Dworkin, another American radical feminist that supported trans rights and claimed that all transgender individuals should have access to the medical services necessary for transitioning. She has also affirmed that studies on transsexuals and the formation of gender identity in children challenge the idea that humans are divided in two distinct sexes. This claim goes directly against the sexual binarism preached by TERFs.
Instead of adopting such perspectives, TERFs prefer to cling to a regressive biopolitics which ties the categories of “men” and “women” to purely biological characteristics, resulting in a strictly binary model that sees intersex people as anomalies that do not challenge the binary.
According to them, gender consists simply of social roles created by the patriarchy with the objective of oppressing women. Thus, they believe that gender roles and gender identity should be abolished while the sexual binary and “sex-based legislation” should be maintained. This vision if flawed in many ways.
The first issue I take with it is that gender goes way beyond social roles reinforced by the patriarchy, especially when you take in account the existence of alternative gender identities in indigenous societies that can hardly be called patriarchal. This vision also denies the validity of transgender identities, since the only thing that matters to them is the “biological sex”. Besides, the abolition of gender roles can be accomplished without erasing the gender identities of transgender people, which would be an imposition of gender rather than the abolition of gender.
What they claim to be an abolition of gender is simply an abolition of the concept of gender rather than gender itself. Categories such as “men” and “women” are gendered categories, even when tied to purely biological characteristics. And tying gender to arbitrary biological characteristics and calling it sex is precisely what most reactionaries want.
Even if we were to base gender purely on biology, there is no consensus in biology regarding how sex should be classified. Looking at the history of sex in biology, we can see how definitions of sex changed through time as new discoveries were made and scientists created new ways of categorizing sex.
And as mentioned before, biologists are increasingly seeing sex as a spectrum without clear boundaries between different categories. This vision has been gaining notoriety through studies and articles in academic journals and publications such as Nature and Scientific American. Either way, gender goes way beyond biology. Still, the debate that is taking place in biology is a clear demonstration that even when talking strictly about biological sex, the vision presented by TERFs is simplistic and regressive.
What does it means to be trans? Theories and views deployed by TERFs
If according to TERFs “men” and “women” should be defined according to certain biological characteristics such as the presence of genitalia, reproductive organs or chromosomes and trans people are not really the gender that they identify as, then what are transgender individuals according to them? What leads one to transition?
TERFs have developed and adopted diverse theories in order to explain our existence in a way that supports their worldview. The majority of these efforts are directed towards denying the identity of trans women and AMAB (Assigned Male At Birth) nonbinary individuals, who they view as a threat.
One of the theories frequently deployed by TERFs that applies to all trans individuals revolves around the idea that trans activists are preaching that certain preferences and personality traits imply that certain individuals belong to a specific gender. A person with a “masculine” personality and tastes that are culturally considered masculine, for instance, would be gendered as a man.
Thus, a girl who enjoys martial arts and has an imposing personality or a boy that enjoys dresses and makeup could be led to believe that they are transgender and pressured to transition, since their tastes and behaviour would be incompatible with their assigned gender. To put it in a few words, this theory consists in the idea that transgenderism is based on identification with gender stereotypes associated with another gender.
Some TERFs go as far as affirming that transgender activists are intentionally targeting gender nonconforming children and teenagers with the intention of convincing them that they are transgender.
This theory is clearly absurd. Among trans individuals and activists, there are many different visions about what makes one transgender, but none of these visions corroborate with this narrative. According to many transgender activists and health professionals that work with trans individuals, the identification with activities and characteristics associated with another gender might be an indicative that a given individual is transgender, but this identification in itself does not mean that this particular individual is transgender, and should be considered together with a host of other factors.
And how can one sustain that idea when so many transgender individuals, activists or not, behave in a way that doesn’t conform at all to stereotypes surrounding the gender that they identify as. This is the case of “masculine” trans women and “feminine” trans man, whose existence is either ignored or mocked by TERFs.
Of course, there are many transgender individuals who conform to cultural ideas about their gender. But aren’t there many cis people whose behavior conforms to gender stereotypes? If this is the case, then why criticize only transgender people if not as a justification for transphobia? Besides as already mentioned, there are plenty of gender nonconforming transgender individuals, people who are frequently mocked for their appearance and labelled as “transtrenders” by TERFs.
Another theory common among TERFs is the idea that trans individuals transition due to internalized homophobia/lesbophobia. According to this theory, gays and lesbians are transitioning due to being uncomfortable with same-sex sexual relations and romantic relationships, changing their gender so they can have “pseudo-heterosexual” relationships, since transgender people belong to the gender they were assigned at birth according to TERFs.
Those who support this theory also frequently claim that transitioning is a way for transgender individuals to escape homophobia/lesbophobia, presenting a vision where the weight of transphobia is less significant than that of homophobia/lesbophobia.
Of course, this theory quickly falls apart once we analyse the lives and experiences of transgender individuals. Many transgender people are gay, lesbian, bisexual or pansexual, and many have lived as these before coming out as transgender. And by asking them if they feel more oppressed for their sexual orientation than for their status as transgender and listening to their answers it quickly becomes evident how absurd is the idea that transitioning is way to escape homophobia/lesbophobia.
When it comes to how TERFs view trans men and AFAB (Assigned Female At Birth) individuals, they are usually seen as victims of the patriarchy. By (correctly) questioning the ways that patriarchal oppression affects women by placing them in a subordinate position, by exposing them to objectification and sexual violence and by causing them to developed many forms of neurosis about their bodies, they frequently (wrongly) conclude that such individuals are women who are identifying as transgender and transitioning in order to escape that oppression.
Thus, they would be victims of the patriarchy that are attempting to escape their oppression by identifying out of it instead of organizing and fighting against it, sisters and comrades lost to “trans ideology”.
This perspective has the pretension of being in solidarity with these individuals while depending on ignoring their narratives about their own bodies, experiences and identities, infantilizing these individuals by treating them as victims who don’t know what is best for them and rejecting the solutions that they seek for the issues that affect them.
When it comes to transgender women and AMAB nonbinary individuals, TERFs present a series of theories that are extremely degrading, and which tend to present us as threats to cis women.
One of the most popular and damaging perspectives about trans women that strongly influenced TERF thought is articulated in the book “The Transsexual Empire”, written in 1979 by American TERF Janice Raymond, who contributed to the attack on public medical services offered to transgender individuals during the mandate of notorious conservative president Ronald Reagan.
In her book, Raymond elaborates the idea that an identification with gender stereotypes is the main cause of transsexualism (she never uses the term “transgender”), which seeks to shape people and transform them into a fake version of the “opposite sex” based on stereotypes. According to her (and many TERFs), if gender stereotypes were destroyed, everyone could behave whichever way they want to without having to identify as a given gender and transitioning would be unnecessary, making it a false solution.
Thus, transsexuals are presented as a creation of patriarchal medicine that seeks to reinforce gender stereotypes and strengthen the patriarchy while creating a way for “men” to invade women’s spaces disguised as women as well as a source of profit for a series of professionals and industries such as the pharmaceutical industry. Raymond refers to the health professionals, industries and institutions involved in the transition process as “the Transsexual Empire”.
According to her, the medical establishment has created and is now vigorously promoting transsexualism and silencing dissident professionals. In her view, transgender individuals are victims that are led to believe in false solutions to problems that have a deeper cause while also being agents of the patriarchy promoting the oppression of women in the case of trans women.
This view demonstrates a complete ignorance of the development of the medical practices involved in the transition process. The health professionals that pioneered such practices, people such as Magnus Hirschfield and Harry Benjamin were dissidents within the medical establishment who had to fight for such practices to be accepted and implemented.
Besides, trans individuals are not passive agents tricked by doctors who shoved medical procedures down our throats. On the contrary, trans people have historically been fighting for and demanding access to these procedures, pressuring health professionals on an individual level and organizing collectively in order to fight for the rights to access these services.
Also, health professionals that deal with trans individuals have been historically reluctant to prescribe hormones or surgeries to trans individuals, which goes against the narrative that portrays these professionals as sinister agents of the patriarchy tricking gullible people into medically transitioning. It is worth noting that such professionals have frequently complained about the insistence and urgency with which transgender people demand such medical services.
The placement of barriers by health professionals that make it more difficult for transgender individuals to access medical services is known as “gatekeeping”. These barriers are a frequent source of frustration for those that must go through many arbitrary obstacles such as long psychiatric evaluations by professionals that are often operating under outdated paradigms in order to obtain access to medical services necessary to their transition.
Here, we should recognize that health professionals often pressure transgender individuals to conform to gender stereotypes, although this is slowly changing. This pressure comes often from psychiatrists who judge the transgender status of patients according to how well they conform to stereotypes associated with their gender.
But transgender individuals are not mere victims that conform to these stereotypes without questioning them, often resisting these attempts at making them conform, questioning such narratives and presenting alternative narratives, as well as organizing and working together with the objective of eradicating such psychiatric practices. Besides, the already mentioned existence of gender nonconforming trans individuals is a living proof of that resistance.
Another aspect of Raymond’s work is the idea that the focus on transsexualism as a phenomenon is the transgender woman (a man in her vision), depicting us as something created by men for men. Thus, the existence of trans men, who go largely unmentioned in her work, has the purpose of hiding that “fact” according to her.
The real focus of transsexualism would then be transgender women, who are “raping female bodies by reducing the female form to an artefact, appropriating this body for themselves” with the objective of “colonizing feminist culture, politics and sexuality” according to her.
And no trans woman is more threatening to her than those that occupy feminist spaces, especially if they happen to lesbians. According to Raymond, trans women who frequent such spaces are males that invade and “penetrate” female spaces with metaphorical phalluses, sabotaging these spaces and destroying them with their “male presence”.
The accusations launched by Raymond were not limited to feminist transgender women as a group. In her book, she directed a series of attacks against Sandy Stone, a feminist trans woman that was part of a music collective created by feminist lesbians named Olivia Records. What ensued is one of the most emblematic cases of how TERF “activism” operates.
The controversy began when TERF “activists” found out that Stone was a transgender woman and sent out a series of letters to the collective accusing her of infiltrating it and attempting to destroy it from the inside with her “male energy”. When the campaign against her began, Stone had already been living with other members of the collective for years, and all of them knew that she was transgender.
Answering the accusations, the collective denied the allegations made about Stone. Still, incited by the accusations, which were reinforced after the publication of Raymond’s book, more TERFs began to manifest against Stone’s presence in the collective. They sent letters, caused a ruckus in many meetings and threatened violence if Stone remained in the collective. These threats included death threats.
The climax of these actions occurred during a performance of the collective that took place in Seattle. A group of TERFs known as Gorgons claimed that they would kill Stone if she performed in the event. Security was reinforced due to the threats. During the event, some Gorgons showed up armed but were disarmed by the security team.
In the end, after some deliberation, Stone decided to leave the collective in order to avoid more trouble. This was the result of a series of situations that were caused not by the presence of Stone, who had been a member of the collective for years, but by the accusations of TERFs that turned Stone into a target simply for being a transgender woman in a feminist collective. Still, Raymond used the case as a supposed example of the harm caused by the presence of a trans woman in a feminist space.
Nowadays, we still see the influence of Raymond and others who have echoed her positions in discourses that attempt to portray trans women as males who act as agents of the patriarchy by turning themselves into false women with the aid of patriarchal medicine in order to invade female spaces, thus creating conflicts between cis and trans women while blaming trans women for creating that conflict with our mere presence.
Other theories cited by TERFs as a way to attack trans women revolve around the idea that our gender identity is nothing more than a sexual fetish, portraying the process of transition as the fulfilling of a male fantasy. Those who talk of such theories often see trans women as sexual predators, accusing us of forcing others to participate in our fetishes by demanding to be treated as women.
The most notorious of these theories, which is also the one most cited by TERFs is the typology developed by sexologist Ray Blanchard in the course of a series of studies released between 1985 and 1993 and popularized by psychologist J. Michael Bailey. This typology remains popular among anti-trans groups. According to Blanchard, the transition of transgender women (who he refers to as males) is motivated by sexual reasons, and all trans women can be classified into two distinct categories: “androphile transsexuals” and “autogynephilic transsexuals”.
Androphiles, who he refers to as “homosexual transsexuals”, are defined primarily by their attraction to men. Thus, in Blanchard’s vision, they are extremely feminine gay men who decide to transition in order to attract male partners. According to him, those that belong to this category tend to have a more feminine gender expression and to transition earlier than those who do not belong to it.
On the category of “autogynephilic transsexuals” he places trans women who are lesbians (heterosexuals in his terms), bisexuals, pansexuals and asexuals. Blanchard affirms that those in this category are heterosexual men with a paraphilia that directs their desire for women towards their own bodies. Thus, their sexual desire supposedly becomes centered around the fantasy of their own bodies as feminine bodies, which he claims causes dysphoria and the desire to transition.
Bisexual and pansexual transgender women are referred by him as “pseudo-bisexual transsexuals”, since according to him, women belonging to this group only seek out men in order to feel more feminine by being penetrated by them, denying the possibility that they might feel attracted to the male body. As for asexuals, those are explained away as individuals whose sexual desire for their bodies as women is so strong that it overshadows any desire for others, making them “sexually self-sufficient” individuals.
This typology and the studies from which it originates contain many methodological and epistemological inconsistencies. For a start, his studies were conducted on a small number of clinical patients. The credibility of his results is also compromised by the fact that they were not successfully reproduced by other researchers.
Another problem with his methodology is that he decided to classify the participants according to their sexual orientation beforehand rather than formulating his categories based on his results, which begs for conclusions that fall within his original classifications. Besides that, he makes no comparison between transgender women and cisgender women, which would be necessary in order to find out to what extent the sexuality of the participants of his study differ from the sexuality of cis women. This methodological flaw raises the possibility that when talking of “autogynephilic transsexuals” he might be pathologizing forms and expressions of sexuality which would not be considered a paraphilia if observed in cis women.
Researcher Charles Moser conducted a study where he interviewed a group of women with the objective of investigating whether they become sexually aroused by their own bodies. According to his results, 93% of the women interviewed experience such arousal sometimes and 28% frequently.
Besides, Blanchard affirms that all transgender women can be classified into two distinct categories which do not overlap, with no exceptions to this rule. A quick look into the lives and experiences of trans women shows that many cannot be placed under either of these categories, and obvious fact that was validated by posterior studies.
Even in Blanchard’s own studies, he found individuals that challenge these categories. But instead of questioning the categories themselves he chose to claim that these individuals were falsely representing their experiences, thus manipulating his results in order to maintain these categories. By choosing to simply dismiss data that challenge his typology he makes his theory essentially unfalsifiable, which seriously undermines its scientific credibility.
It is also clear that many of the claims he makes are absurd unless one completely ignores the experiences of transgender women that challenge such claims. One instance is the idea that bisexual transgender women do not truly feel attracted to the male body, which calls for their sexuality to be classified as “pseudo-bisexual”. Besides, a study conducted by Blanchard himself showed bisexual trans women to have a level of androphilia higher than their level of gynephilia on average.
Another problem with Blanchard’s methodology is that he doesn’t investigate other possible hypothesis and interpretations of his data such as the hypothesis that arousal at the idea of having a female body might be a product of dysphoria rather than the opposite. I believe such a hypothesis to be much more plausible.
Lastly, it is also worth noting that Blanchard is a conservative homophobe who has claimed that homosexual sex should be classified as an abnormality. The fact that TERFs are willing to accept uncritically half-baked theories articulated by conservatives if these theories serve their goals says a lot about them.
Another theory with even more serious methodological flaws which has recently become another weapon wielded by TERFs in their crusade against transgenders is the idea of Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria (RODG). This theory affirms that there has emerged a new form of gender dysphoria that is completely distinct from previously known forms.
This supposed dysphoria, which is theoretically affecting teenagers in particular, would be characterized by its sudden emergence in individuals that have never shown any signs of dysphoria, being tied to influences exerted by social media, digital media and the social environment of those affected by it, which raises the hypothesis of a social contagion. Another characteristic pointed by supporters of the theory is a decline in the mental health of those supposedly suffering from it after they begin to transition, as well as the deterioration of the relationship between them and their parents. It is also claimed that this condition affects AFAB individuals disproportionately,
Before we dive into these claims, it is worth looking at the origins of the theory and the concept. The term originated in three websites: 4thwavenow.com, Transgendertrend.com, and YouthTransCriticalProfessionals.org. The two first websites are focused on parents that are concerned about “transgenderism” among young people, while the third is dedicated to health professionals that disagree with the medical consensus on how to deal with transgender kids and teenagers.
A quick analysis of these websites reveals that all of them are infested with transphobic ideas and permeated by language that is extremely degrading when talking about trans individuals and the process of transition, which is often described using terms such as “chemical and surgical lesions” and “auto-mutilation”. All three websites are also filled with absurd suggestions of substitutes to transition or to the gender-affirmative approach such as doing yoga and sleeping well.
These websites are also filled with transphobic and pseudoscientific theories about transgenders such as the already mentioned idea that transgender people are sexual fetichists, as well as baseless allegations against trans individuals. Besides, accounts of parents of trans teenagers and kids from there show that they tend to be skeptical of the identities of their children, and they are constantly encouraged by other parents in these websites to deny these identities.
It was in such websites that the researcher Lisa Litman (who has never worked with trans youth) searched for parents of transgender kids and teenagers to answer a survey composed of 90 questions (multiple choice and open-ended). Based on data collected from 256 answered surveys, she published a study on the academic journal PLOS One, giving a supposedly scientific basis to the term RODG. The term was quickly picked up by controversial researchers such as Ray Blanchard and Lisa Marchiano, who also writes for conservative website Quillette.
Before we speak about the glaring methodological flaws of the study, it is worth talking about where she chose to publish it. PLOS One is an open access journal with a publishing philosophy that differs from most by allowing almost anything to be published after a simple technical revision. Criteria such as the way that the author interpret the data rarely come into play. This allows for the publishing of studies that would be rejected by most academic journals, which is evidenced by the fact that Litman was able to publish a study with an extremely problematic methodology.
But what are the problems with her methodology? First, we have that fact that she took all her samples from three websites that share the same ideology, and which tend to be transphobic and to treat the gender identities of transgender youth with skepticism. Besides, the term RODG itself was coined in these websites. Thus, the sampling taken from them is not representative of the overall population and was almost certainly chosen with the intention of confirming the RODG thesis, since it would require a baffling incompetence as a researcher to unintentionally chose a sampling from such sources.
Another issue is that all the surveys are directed at the parents of trans youth, completely ignoring the perspectives of their children . This becomes even more problematic when one takes into account that it is well established in the literature on transgender youth that parents very often misrepresent and misunderstand their experiences. To make things worse, all parents were recruited from anti-trans websites, which indicates that their tendency to misrepresent the experiences of their children is likely much worse than average.
Even if such tendencies weren’t a factor, the experiences and perspective of trans youth themselves are a key component if we want to study their dysphoria, and the lack of such a component seriously compromises the study’s credibility.
As if all the methodological issues with the way Litman obtained her data weren’t enough, she also interpreted it in ways that ignored simpler explanations for it, as well as previous scientific literature on the topic.
One instance is her claim that the fact that a large part of the trans youth she studied had many trans friends who also often came out as transgender at around the same time seems to indicate that a social contagion might be a work. She also cites as further evidence for that hypothesis the fact that many of these groups were formed before the individuals in them publicly came out.
The fact that trans individuals tend to form groups in order to protect themselves from discrimination and establish relationships with people who can understand their life experiences is well observed. Thus, there is nothing strange with trans youth being surrounded by trans friends. Even the mathematical calculations that Litman performed in order to demonstrate the supposed unlikelihood of observing so many “clusters” of trans friends do not corroborate with her hypothesis, as was demonstrated by Serano.
Besides, it is worth noting that this hypothesis is worthless without the perspective of the trans teenagers and kids. How to know if they had not come out as trans to each other and to other close friends before? And isn’t it usually the case that trans individuals tend to first come out to their close friends? This is even more plausible when considering that the parents recruited in for the study tend to have an anti-trans perspective which is very likely to make their children more reluctant to come out to them.
This hypothesis is much more consistent with what we already know about trans youth, and it is a much more plausible explanation for what is being observed than the idea that a social contagion is causing teenagers to identify as transgender.
Another problematic aspect of the way Litman interprets her data is her hypothesis that the deterioration of the mental health of the trans youth that were analysed and of the relationship between them and their parents is the product of a new form of dysphoria. The sampling indicates that a large part of the parents involved are transphobic and tend to deny the gender identity of their children, which evidently affects the relationship between them as well as the mental health of the children.
Besides, there is ample scientific evidence that one of the main factors that affect the mental health of trans individuals (especially trans youth) is how accepted their identities are, especially by their families. When we take that in consideration, it becomes much more likely that the deterioration of their mental health is a product of the rejection they experience from their families instead of something caused by a new form of dysphoria, but Litman chooses to ignore that hypothesis in order to push her narrative.
Even the idea that the increase in AFAB transgender teenagers is a product of a new form of dysphoria makes less sense than the hypothesis that such an increase is a result of the increased visibility of transgender men and AFAB non-binary individuals, which is a factor that aids the process of self-discovery of such individuals.
When we analyse the study as a whole, it becomes clear not only that its methodology for data collection is seriously flawed but also that Litman ignored interpretations that are more straightforward and in agreement with previous studies in favor of those that fit the narrative of RODG. It is also worth noting that no serious organization that works with transgender people supports this concept. The World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) for instance, urges people not to use the term, since it not a concept that has any credibility among health professionals that work with transgender individuals.
Everything seems to point out that this is another attempt to find ways to deny the validity of the gender identities of trans youth in order to attract negative press and make it more difficult for such youth to access the medical services necessary to their transition, all under the guise of protecting them. Whether such judgment is accurate or not, the fact remains that there is no proper scientific basis for the concept.
Other issues raised by TERFs
Besides theories surrounding the origins of transgender people, TERFs raise a series of other points based on false premises that are used as a way to criticize trans individuals and trans activism and to mobilize people against transgender rights, as well as against the occupation of women’s spaces by transgender women.
One issue that is worth looking into is the debate around male/female socialization. TERFs frequently argue that trans individuals can never truly belong to their gender because we were socialized according to the gender that was assigned to us at birth. According to them, such socialization cannot be overcome. This argument is usually used in order to argue that trans women should not be allowed in women’s spaces, since our socialization supposedly makes us a threat.
In fact, gendered socialization is a factor that should be considered when talking about gender, and raising questions around it is valid. That being said, the way that TERFs talk about gendered socialization is not only problematic and transphobic but also based on assumptions that go against basic feminist premises, which will be talked about later.
The way TERFs approach the socialization debate lacks nuance. There is no such thing as a universal male or female socialization. There is definitely a global trend (with few exceptions) of socializing women to be submissive and men to be dominant, but such socialization takes different forms and operates to different degrees in different cultures.
Even within a single culture, such socialization is applied in different ways to different individuals. Socialization can change according to the city, neighborhood and other environments frequented by individuals. Gender roles tend to be more strictly enforced in small rural religious towns than in cosmopolitan metropolises for instance.
Even factors such as the school and household one finds oneself in can have a profound difference. And It is becoming increasingly common for parents to attempt to raise their children without imposing gender stereotypes. Besides, in the case of transgender individuals, the age that we begin to transition makes a significant difference in terms of how we are socialized. You cannot compare the gendered socialization of a trans individual who began their transition during childhood to that of one who came out as transgender as a middle-aged adult. It is also worth noting that the fact that one is transgender affects the way that they react to gendered socialization.
And we do have to take in consideration the way that different individuals react to their socialization. After all, we are not passive objects without any capacity to resist and overcome the ways in which we are socialized. Besides, if all women were socialized to be submissive and our destinies were fully determined by our socialization, the feminist cause would be useless, since all cis women would be condemned to subordination by their socialization and all trans women would be permanently tainted by theirs. Thus, such views go against one of the basic premises of feminism, which is the idea that the patriarchy can (and should) be overcome.
Still, TERFs insist in presenting such a view of gendered socialization in order to depict trans women as a threat and to exclude us from women’s spaces. The spaces that are the focus of this debate are women’s bathrooms and prisons, and TERFs have been fiercely opposing any piece of legislation that might facilitate transgender women’s access to such spaces.
Their arguments for excluding us based on our socialization often includes the idea That trans women are as likely as cis men to commit violent crimes and sexual abuse. When asked for evidence they will frequently cite a study conducted by Cecilia Dhejne, a researcher working at the time for the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden.
The study followed 324 transgender individuals that underwent sex reassignment surgery over a period of 30 years. These individuals were divided in two groups according to the period that they were observed, and the researchers collected data on the mortality rate and rate of criminal convictions of these individuals.
One of the observations made by the study was that trans women observed from 1973 to 1988 were criminally convicted at a rate similar to that of cis men. This observation has been frequently mentioned by TERFs who cite the study in order to push a narrative that depicts trans women as being as dangerous as cis men. But such interpretation is not only incorrect but also in direct contradiction with the study’s findings.
First, the study doesn’t comment on which crimes these individuals were being convicted for. Besides, the marginalization experienced by transgender individuals often push us towards prostitution, which increases the chances that one might be criminally convicted.
And the study itself noted that these rates of criminal conviction were not observed in the group that was studied in between 1988 and 2003, likely a result of the decreased marginalization of transgender individuals, as well as trans people having access to mental health services of increasingly better quality, which was cited by the study. Still, this part of the study is conveniently ignored by TERFs who cite it in order to justify the exclusion of trans women from women’s spaces.
This brings us to another issue, which the idea that creating laws that allow for trans individuals to use the proper bathroom makes (cis) women more vulnerable to sex predators. This idea is presented in two forms. The first argues that such laws make it easier for sexual predators to pretend to be women in order to access women’s bathrooms. The second claims that trans women are a threat due to supposedly being male.
Whether in one form or another, these ideas are baseless. Many countries have bathrooms laws that are trans-inclusive, and not a single one of these has experienced an increase in sexual assaults in women’s bathrooms. Last year, a study conducted by the Williams Institute, a Think Tank associated with the UCLA School of Law, concluded that there is no correlation between crimes in bathrooms and trans-inclusive bathroom laws.
What is supported by studies, is the fact that not allowing transgender individuals to use the proper bathrooms puts us at risk. A recent study, for instance, indicated that trans youth are at a high risk of sexual assault if not allowed to use the appropriate bathrooms.
Besides, the hysteria around the bathroom debate has harmed cis women. There have already been many cases of gender nonconforming women being harassed at women’s bathrooms due to being mistaken for trans women. What happens in the end is that TERFs hurt cis women by promoting that hysteria under the guise of protecting women’s rights.
Another issue raised by TERFs is the idea that trans activism harms and erases lesbians. I find this claim particularly pernicious due to how it attempts to pit trans activists and cis lesbians against one another. Besides, this idea is often used by opportunist individuals that are heterosexual and not interested in LGBT issues except for the purpose of attacking transgender people.
This claim has many forms. One of them is the idea that trans activism is erasing lesbians by pressuring lesbians with a “masculine” gender presentation to identify as men and transition. Not only is this idea baseless, it also infantilizes trans men by portraying them as lesbians who were tricked and denying them autonomy over their own identities.
Trans activists recognize the difference between a lesbian with a “masculine” gender expression and a transgender man, and it is up to every individual to decide how they identify and up for others to respect their identity. When TERFs call trans men lesbians, they are doing precisely what they claim trans activists are doing, which is erasing identities. Besides, there are plenty of trans women who are gender nonconforming lesbians;
Another form of pitting trans women against cis lesbians is by depicting us as sexual predators by claiming that we are pressuring lesbians to have sex with us and calling them transphobic when they refuse to do so. Those who preach that use the term “cotton ceiling” to refer to that supposed coercion, citing a term that was created by trans activists.
The term itself was created to refer to a completely different thing, appearing initially as a criticism of lesbians who use their sexuality as a way to de-legitimize trans women by claiming that they wouldn’t date them because they don’t date men.
Practically no trans activists claims or believes that cis lesbians need to enjoy penises if they are attached to a woman or believes that it is acceptable to pressure cis lesbians into dating trans women. The idea that such a thing is happening is another rumor spread by TERFs in order to paint depict women as sexual predators.
Linda Riley, British lesbian and editor of a magazine for lesbian and bisexual women called Diva Magazine said once in a debate on a radio program broadcasted by BBC that in 40 years living as a lesbian she has never seen a cisgender woman being coerced into having sex with a trans woman. After the interview, she was harassed online by many TERFs who questioned her choice of sexual partners, mocked her working-class accent and said accused her of not being a true lesbian.
Besides, TERFs that spread the rhetoric of lesbian erasure and the cotton ceiling are the first ones to refuse to recognize cis lesbians as lesbians when they date trans women, affirming that due to being attracted by “men” they cannot truly be lesbians. Isn’t this an actual attempt at erasing lesbians by denying their identities?
This brings us to another claim made by TERFs, which is the idea that the terminology used by transgender activists harms women, especially trans-inclusive language and the terminology associated with queer theory and activism, which TERFs vehemently reject.
They say, for instance, that when people use terminology that includes trans men when talking about issues such as abortion and pregnancy, they are covering up the fact that this is an issue that mostly affects women. They also claim that using terms such as “people with uteruses” (which is indeed an awkward term) makes it harder for women to simply call themselves women.
But including trans men in debates about pregnancy and abortion does not erase the fact that these are issues that primarily affect women, just as recognizing that men can also be victims of sexual assault is not incompatible with treating it as an issue that primarily affects women. Besides, trans men can in fact get pregnant, and policing language to prevent the recognition of that fact only obscures issues related to pregnancy. Also, no one is making it harder for cis women to continue to use the term “women” or to refer to themselves as women when dealing with such issues.
They also tend to oppose the use of the term “queer” by trans activists, a term which is usually used in two ways. The first way the term is used is as an umbrella term that includes all individuals whose gender/sexuality or gender presentation deviates from the norm. Used in that sense, the term includes a variety of identities.
The term is also used to refer to an anti-identitariary political theory and praxis. Influenced by these perspectives, many individuals refer to themselves as queer as a refusal to fit their gender and/or sexuality within any identity category.
TERFs argue that the second use of the term erases different identities that people might identify with, while the first use forces LGBT people to identify with a term that they reject (“I am a lesbian, not queer!”).
But absolutely no trans activists are putting pressure into people to stop identifying how they wish to and to refer to themselves using the term “queer”. Lesbians, gays and bisexuals who want to describe themselves using such terms can keep doing that while others might choose the term “queer”. Those who are attempting to police language are TERFs themselves who are constantly writing furious articles attacking the term and claiming that its use is erasing identities.
The same is true for the term “cis” which according to them is making it harder for cis women to simply identity as “women”, which they claim to be a form of “female-erasure”. But the term was simply created to distinguish between transgender and non-transgender individuals, and it doesn’t make it harder in any way for cis women to identify as women without adding the prefix “cis”.
They also criticize the term “TERF” itself, which they claim is a pejorative term used to justify misogyny. This claim is completely baseless. The term is descriptive. TERFs themselves identify as radical feminists, and they are explicitly in favor of excluding trans women from women’s spaces, which makes them trans-exclusionary.
Some of them claim that this characterization is unfair because they don’t want to exclude trans individual from women’s spaces, only trans women. Trans men, who they consider to be women, are accepted. So they exclude trans women from women’s spaces while at the same time denying trans men’s status as men and then claim that it is unfair to label them as trans-exclusionary.
Their claim that the term is a cover for misogyny also makes no sense. It is only used to label those that use radical feminism as an excuse for transphobia. Also, the term is frequently used by feminists both cis and trans who are actively fighting against patriarchal oppression to describe those who belong to that group, and who ironically, are reinforcing transmisogyny with their actions, which is a form of misogyny.
Still, the term is indeed pejorative just like terms such as “racist” “sexist” and “misogynist”. It only makes sense that a term used to describe a group of people characterized by their transphobia would have a negative connotation just as the other cited terms.
That being said, anti-TERF rhetoric often assumes a very aggressive tone. Still, such a reaction is expected when TERFs are not only spreading extremely transphobic rhetoric but also actively organizing against trans rights.
Besides, it is quite ironic that they have so many complaints to make about the terminology used by trans activists when they use extremely degrading terminology when talking about transgender individuals and issues.
As already mentioned, they refer to trans women as “Trans-Identified Males” (Tim’s) and to trans men as “Trans-Identified Females” (Tif’s). Surgeries are frequently described as mutilations, and vaginas produced by sex-reassignment surgeries are often called “axe-wounds”, “fuckholes” and other such things. Terms like “Frankenstein” are also thrown around when describing trans individuals that have gone through surgeries.
TERFs will also say that trans activism is endangering children. Trans activists are often accused of promoting child abuse by supporting a gender-affirmative approach that recognizes and supports the gender identity of trans youth when providing psychological care to said youth. This idea is in large part based on claims that affirm that children are being pressured into prematurely undergoing a process of gender transition and taking untested and dangerous puberty blockers for being gender nonconforming and/or for claiming a gender identity different from the one that was assigned to them at birth.
Some even claim that children are being put on hormones and undergoing surgeries. Such claims, which (as many TERF claims) are also deployed by religious fundamentalists and conservatives demonstrate a complete lack of understanding of how the gender affirmative approach works.
Professionals that work with such an approach understand that a child that claims a gender identity that differs from the one assigned to them at birth might change their mind. They also understand that gender nonconforming behavior by itself does not mean that a given child is trans and should undergo gender transition. The main difference between a transgender individual and one that is going through a phase or is simply a gender nonconforming individual is that a transgender person will present a cross-gender identification that is consistent and persistent through time.
The gender affirmative approach doesn’t have the objective of transitioning gender nonconforming youth and youth who claim a cross-gender identity. It has the objective of listening to these individuals together with their parents, and other adults that are part of their lives in order to understand what exactly they are communicating about their gender. During this process, the gender identity claimed by that individual is accepted and respected.
Such an approach gives these youth the opportunity to explore their gender identity and expression without being judged or rejected for it, and it presents clear benefits to their mental health. Children and teenagers who do not have their gender identity respected are at a much higher risk of experiencing psychosocial adversities such as depression, self-harm, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal tendencies.
Besides, the gender affirmative approach doesn’t include any medical procedures in small children. There are no trans activists or doctors that work with the gender affirmative approach giving hormones to children that are 5 years old.
The first medical intervention that takes place is the application of puberty blockers, which are applied when puberty is about to take place if the child’s cross-gender identification persists. Blockers inhibit the development of secondary sexual characteristics that are associated with puberty, giving individuals more time to consolidate their gender identity without undergoing the effects of puberty, which are partially irreversible and often extremely distressing to trans people. The effects provoked by blockers can be reversed by quitting the medication in case a given individual decides not to transition.
Those who oppose the use of puberty blockers, including TERFs, often affirm that these medications are dangerous and that that their side-effects are not well known. Leuprorelin, used in treating trans youth, was patented in 1973 and applied for the first time in the United States in 1985 with the purpose of treating diverse conditions.
So we are talking about a medication that has been tested for more than 40 years and which has been safely used for over thirty years. The use of blockers in treating transgender youth is more recent, but so far, the scientific literature on this treatment indicates that its potential benefits far outweighs its potential risks.
The main risks associated with puberty blockers are tied to bone development and the possible loss of fertility. There is also a concern that puberty blockers might affect cognitive development, but the data that we have so far has found no connection between lower cognitive capacity and the use of puberty blockers in the long term. Despite that, there is still a need for more studies on the subject.
All being considered, there are risks associated with puberty blockers. While these risks are very small when compared to the sensationalist image created by TERFs, such risks need to be taken into consideration. Still, such risks need to be weighted against their potential benefits, as well as against the risks associated with letting transgender individuals go through an undesired puberty.
Such an experience can be distressing and even traumatic to transgender individuals, increasing the intensity of their gender dysphoria and deteriorating mental health. Besides, the effects of puberty are not fully reversible, which means that failure to stop its effects will cause lifelong consequences.
Besides, in the long term, transgender individuals that didn’t have their puberty blocked and began their transition as adults tend to require more surgeries and other medical procedures. In conclusion, the risks associated with puberty blockers are fairly insignificant when compared to their benefits.
That being said, there is much to improve in the treatment of trans youth. We still don’t know, for instance, how to reliably differentiate between children whose cross-gender identity will disappear and those that are transgender without accompanying them through time and see if their trans identity persists. We also need more studies on the long-term effects of puberty blockers in treating trans youth in order to better understand how to apply them and deal with possible side-effects.
But the answer to such questions lies in more research and in the dialogue between scientists, health professionals that work with trans youth, the youth themselves and the adults close to them. Only then we can find ways to better deal with trans and gender nonconforming youth. And in this process, the sensationalist images conjured by TERFs and other reactionaries every time trans youth are mentioned does only harm to them and to their families.
TERF “activism” in practice
Having covered the context in which TERFs have emerged, their vision and objections against transgenders and trans activism, it is worth going through how their “activism” works in practice and what are its consequences. Since the seventies, TERFs have been fiercely fighting against trans individuals, spreading misinformation, fighting against trans rights, doxxing (exposing someone’s private information) trans activists and individuals and making use of threats of violence and actual violence in some cases.
Their organized fight against trans rights has been particularly harmful. An already cited example which had extremely serious consequences was Janice Raymond’s role in the removal of public healthcare services for trans peoplein the United States during Reagan’s administration in the seventies.
Soon after writing her book “The Transexual Empire”, Raymond wrote a report for the National Center for Healthcare Technology. In this report, she defines the medical services associated with gender transition as controversial, cosmetic, anti-ethical and medically unnecessary.
Despite not being backed by any scientific evidence at all, her report contributed to the removal of public health services associated with gender transition, which had a devastating effect in the American trans population.
This case stands out for its success and for its consequences. But with or without success, TERFs have been and still are fighting fiercely against trans rights in many countries throughout the world. One of the most notorious campaigns organized by TERFs that is taking place at the moment is their opposition to reforms that were proposed to the Gender Recognition Act, which was approved in 2004 in the United Kingdom, one of the regions where they have the most influence and political power.
The act represented an advance in trans rights, allowing trans individuals to have their gender recognized by the state. While this was a step forward, this recognition is only granted under the condition that many arbitrary criteria are fulfilled. These include the need for the individual to be over 18 years old (or to have parental approval in case they are between 16 and 18), “proof” they have been living as their gender (whatever that is supposed to mean) for at least two years and the statement that they intend to live as that gender “for the rest of their lives” among other criteria. Besides, the process to have one’s gender recognized is bureaucratic, expensive and inaccessible for some people.
The proposed reform would allow trans individuals to have their gender recognized based on self-identification, something which TERFs are against regardless of the country. In Ireland, this reform was implemented in 2015, and many other countries allow one’s gender to be recognized based on self-identification.
Still, the proposal has generated many protests and much controversy due to it being strongly opposed by many reactionary groups, especially TERFs who argue that such a reform would put (cis)women at risk by allowing “males” to enter women’s spaces.
They weave their arguments in a way that depicts trans rights as if they were in opposition to women’s rights. This narrative has been picked on by numerous media vehicles, including supposedly progressive ones.
There are many problems with this position. The first one is that it doesn’t count trans women being able to access women’s spaces as women’s rights, which means that it denies our status as a women. Also, there is no basis for the belief that laws that allow for gender recognition based on self-identification are a threat to cis women. Besides, no country where such laws were approved saw an increase in violence against women due to said approval, which shows that allowing trans women into women’s spaces do not threaten the safety of cis women.
What is an actual threat to the safety of women is refusing to let us access women’s spaces, which increases the likelihood that we will be victims of violence or sexual assault in bathrooms and prisons. Such a scenario also increases the likelihood of violence against transgender men and non-binary individuals. And unlike TERF speculations, this scenario is based on a systematic violence that is very real.
Still, TERFs keep conjuring apocalyptic scenarios that never come true based on extrapolations from flights of imagination and isolated cases in order to spread fear so they can justify their attacks on trans rights.
TERFs have also been willing to oppose projects that grant rights to other minorities if such projects also benefit trans individuals. One instance is the TERF opposition to the Equality Act, a law that was approved in the United States onMay 2019 granting protection to citizens at a federal level against various forms of discrimination. These include protection against discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.
Despite granting protection to the LGBT population, which TERFs claim to support, they depicted the law as doing more harm than good and as a threat to women because it protects gender identity, which they claim (once again) would allow sexual predators to enter women’s spaces. In their fight against the Equality Act TERFs have allied with right wing groups, including religious fundamentalists and anti-feminist groups.
Among the TERF organizations that are opposing the Equality Act is the Women’s Liberation Front, know by the acronym WoLF. Founded in 2014, the organization claims to be for the liberation of all women. In their official Facebook page, they talk of many issues that affect women. Still, their actual activism has focused in opposing pro-trans legislation.
The most well-known WoLF activist is Julia Beck, a lesbian TERF that was expelled from a Baltimore LGBTQ city council due to her anti-trans stances. Soon after the fact, she appeared on the conservative outlet Fox News to talk with Tucker Carlson, a pundit known for his extremely racist and misogynist declarations.
During the program, Beck reiterated reactionary myths which attempt to depict the inclusion of trans women in women’s spaces as a threat to women. She also claimed that the struggle of trans people shouldn’t be compared to that of lesbians, gays and bisexuals due to not being based on sexual orientation, and that all these categories should not belong to a single acronym.
In January 2019, Julia appeared along with WoLF members Jennifer Chavez and Kara Dansky at an event against the Equality Act organized by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative organization with strong ties to the Republican Party.
The organization has a long history of fighting for the advancement of conservative causes. Through decades, it has fought against abortion, opposed feminism, promoted climate denialism and attempted to attack LGBT rights under the guise of defending religious freedom.
This reactionary history has not stopped TERFs from WoLF from participating in the event and acting as puppets for the conservative right by articulating arguments that are supposedly feminist and from the left in order to provide legitimacy to the organization’s attacks against trans rights. These arguments were once again based on the recurring idea that allowing trans women into women’s spaces is a threat to cis women.
But this wasn’t the only time that TERFs allied with the Heritage Foundation. In February 2019, WoLF member Mary Lou Singleton joined another event organized by the institution where she repeated the same transphobic myths that were professed earlier by Beck, Chavez and Dansky.
As if this wasn’t enough, WoLF has received funding from the far right. The organization has received U$ 15,000 from Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a religious fundamentalist group that has also used the concept of religious freedom to argue against LGBT rights and which has also fought for other conservative causes.
It can be argued that it is unfair to make statements about TERFs as a whole based on the actions of a single group, but the way TERFs as a whole reacted to WoLF’s alliances say a lot of them. When we type “Julia Beck” and “WoLF” into r/GenderCritical, the largest TERF space on reddit, we can see that there is more support for Beck and WoLF than negative criticism for their actions.
When we are talking about an organization which forges alliances with reactionary and anti-feminist organizations in such a shameless way, nothing less than a total rejection of the organization and its association with radical feminism should be acceptable. Yet, this is not what we see in TERF spaces.
It is worth mentioning that one can find plenty of posts in the same subreddit debating whether it is acceptable to make alliances with antifeminist and anti-LGBT groups in order to fight the “trans menace”. In these debates, some TERFs argue against such alliances, while others believe them to be justifiable when it comes to fighting trans rights.
What one can also find in online spaces frequented by TERFs is content from reactionary institutions, websites and media outlets that push an anti-trans narrative. By sharing this type of content, they are giving reactionaries an audience. Right wing groups and individuals also frequently share TERF content, which provides them with more arguments to attack trans rights and individuals with.
But TERF “activism” is not limited to attacking the transgender population as a whole. Trans individuals are frequently targeted as well. Notorious TERF Cathy Brennan for instance, known for having co-signed a letter to the United Nations arguing against the recognition of gender identity, has targeted many individuals. She contacted the employer of a trans activist and the doctor of a trans woman who was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, interfering with her treatment. She has also exposed the profiles of many trans women in the dating website OKCupid.
Sometimes, these actions target trans youth as well. In 2013, conservative organization Pacific Justice Institute published a fake story about a trans teenager that was supposedly harassing cis girls in the girls’s bathroom. The rumor was reproduced by Fox News, which not only described the student with masculine pronouns but also affirmed that spokespeople for the school claimed that the student’s rights as a transgender individual are more important than the rights of the girls to privacy when questioned by parents.
The website Gender Identity Watch, a well-known TERF website spread those rumors as well and exposed the student’s deadname, describing her as a “male student”. When trans activist Cristan Williams called the school to investigate what happened, she found out that the whole story was based on complaints from a parent who was uncomfortable with letting the trans student use the girl’s bathroom.
There were no complaints of harassment coming from students. Still, the exposure that came from conservatives and TERFs spreading fake stories had a serious psychological impact on the student, who was already dealing with bullying. She was so badly affected that her parents put her on suicide watch.
It is worth noting that exposing trans individuals is a pretty common practice among TERFs. And such actions do not only target trans activists or individuals involved in notorious cases. In online spaces frequented by TERFs, it is common to share posts and pictures from profiles of trans people in social networks. These individuals are often mocked for their looks, their hobbies and their sexual preferences and fetishes, which are often used to justify the narrative that being trans is a sexual fetish.
Cathy Brennan, for instance, created an entire website dedicated to exposing trans women and allies. Her website contains many pictures and posts from social network profiles of trans women with their names and faces. The posts on her website also often include the previous names of many trans women.
Trans people using social networks often receive abusive messages from TERFs, which include calls to suicide and threats of violence. These TERFs also insist on misgendering those that they harass, sometimes using their previous names in case they know them.
But TERFs do not limit themselves to abusing trans individuals over the internet. Despite frequently complaining about the aggressive rhetoric of trans activists, they have a long history of inciting and participating in violence against trans people. The case of Sandy Stone, already mentioned above, is the most emblematic. But unfortunately, this is far from the only event of this type.
In the early days of the organized LGBT movement in the United States, trans women and activist Sylvia Rivera was attacked during New York City’s Pride parade in 1973 by radical feminist Jean O’Leary, who had just spoken against Rivera accusing her of being a parody of a woman. Despite the attacks, Rivera managed to get to the stage and deliver one of the most iconic speeches in LGBT history.
Another emblematic example of TERF violence occurred in 1973 as well during the West Coast Lesbian Feminist Conference, an event organized by lesbian radical feminists from Los Angeles. One of the organizers of the event was trans woman and lesbian Beth Elliot, who was also invited to perform as a singer during the event.
Some TERFs opposed her presence and distributed pamphlets criticizing the “intrusion” of a “man” in the conference, which generated a debate around Elliot’s inclusion. When the moment for her performance arrived, some TERFs rose up and moved towards the stage. Robyn Tyler and Patty Harisson, a radical feminist comedy duo, rose up to protect Elliot and were attacked by the TERFs who wished to hurt her.
After the attack, a vote was held to decide whether Elliot should be allowed to stay in the convention. A majority voted in favor of her inclusion, but she decided to leave in order to avoid further problems.
In 1991, TERF prejudice inspired a movement that was a landmark in trans activism, and which would elicit aggressive responses from TERFs. Everything began in the 1991’s edition of Michigan Womyn’s Festival, also known as Michfest. The festival, which lasted from 1976 to 2015, was a feminist event organized and frequented exclusively by women.
Nancy Burkholder, a trans woman who had already attended the festival was expelled that year due to being trans without even being allowed to return to the spot where she was camped and retrieve her belongings. Her expulsion was justified on the grounds of the festival’s “womym-born-womyn” policy.
After the event, cis and trans women who supported Burkholder started to mobilize against the festival’s trans-exclusive policy and against transphobia in general. In 1992, cis feminists who opposed the exclusion of trans women from the festival conducted a survey inside its grounds asking whether participants were in favor of excluding trans women among other things.
They interviewed 633 people among a total of 7,500 attendees. 73.1% of the women interviewed said that trans women should be included, while 22.6% were against their inclusion and 4.3% weren’t sure or didn’t answer that question. Despite most participants being in favor of allowing trans women in, the exclusionary policy remained.
Janis Walworth, one of the feminists involved with the survey, entered the festival next year with four trans women and set up a space for promoting awareness of trans issues by distributing literature and organizing debates. Soon after setting up the space, they were told by some festival organizers that they had to leave for their own safety due to threats of violence from TERFs who opposed their presence.
Some festival attendees, including a group of Leather Dykes offered to protect them, but they had already agreed that they would leave if asked to. They gathered their belongings and camped just outside the festival. The next day, they set up a table with trans and feminist literature, creating a space for debates and announcing in a pink banner that the space was organized by trans women expelled from the festival.
This was the beginning of Camp Trans, which would return in many editions of the festival and involve iconic trans activists such as Leslie Feinberg and Riki Wilchins. The camp’s name made its first appearance in 1994, when 28 people set up camp and raised a banner that said: “Camp Trans: For humans-born-humans”.
Through its different editions, a wide range of activities took place in the camp, which was frequented by many festival attendees, transforming a discriminatory policy into an opportunity to educate people on trans issues and to form bonds between trans and cis feminists.
The movement attracted a lot of animosity from TERFs, who saw it as a threat to a space reserved for women. Cis feminists who supported Camp Trans had their spaces inside the festival vandalized, and the literature they brought was thrown away. Violent threats were made. The blog Dirt from Dirt spread a series of rumours of violent actions that were supposedly committed by Camp Trans members without providing any evidence. These rumours would be reproduced by notorious TERF Sheila Jeffreys in her book Gender Hurts, published in 2014.
But the most serious reaction from TERFs to the protests against the festival’s exclusionary policy took place in 1999 when some Lesbian Avengers entered the festival with a 16 years old trans girl.
Trouble began as soon as they entered when a group of TERFs surrounded them and began to shout “Man on the land! Man on the land!”. The group tried to diffuse the tension and distribute shirts and stickers, but the tension increased. Nomy Lamm, member of the spoken word poetry group Sister Spit interrupted her performance and came to the girl’s aid.
Soon, the group was under a tent surrounded by TERFs shouting against them and directing most of their abuse towards the trans girl. Making a single line, they took turns shouting against those in the group. The girl was called a rapist and accused of destroying womanhood among other things.
At one point, one of the TERFs brandished a knife and threatened the girl, saying that she didn’t know if she could control herself if the trans girl refused to leave the festival. No one did anything about those threats, and the abuse continued while the girl cried. In the end, she managed to get out of the festival without any injuries, although she was clearly affected by the event.
The dispute between TERFs and trans activists would continue through the next editions of the festival, generating intense debate in the media and among feminists and trans activists. In 2015 the festival ended, leaving a controversial legacy. The conflicts that occurred through the festival’s many editions demonstrated not only the TERF’s propensity to aggressive actions even when dealing with attempts at opening dialogue but also how they colonize feminist spaces and exclude trans women from women’s spaces where most women who occupy these spaces would have no problem including them.
This is the same sort of dynamic involved in the events that resulted in the exclusion of Sandy Stone and Beth Elliot from feminist spaces. It is worth noting here that in both of these cases, the trans women involved voluntarily decided to leave these spaces in order to avoid conflict even being accepted by most women there, which goes against the TERF narrative that tries to paint trans women as colonizers who ruin women’s spaces.
This toxic dynamic keeps repeating itself when TERFs utilize misinformation and intimidation while dehumanizing trans individuals and attacking us in the name of feminism, attacking also trans allies even when they are cis feminists as well and allying with conservative groups without any scruples in the process. Their “feminism” needs to be called out and recognized for what it is: A regressive ideology that hurts cis and trans women as well as trans men and non-binary folks and which should not be tolerated by progressives of any stripe.