1) TERF n. 1 the acronym for Trans-Exclusionary-Radical-Feminists: Did you hear? J. K. Rowling is a TERF, allegedly.
2) -dom suffix 1 Forming nouns that denote the set of all examples of the suffixed word.
For starters, I don’t want to offend anyone by my use of the term “TERF”. I don’t want to offend any exclusionary feminists, or any inclusionary intersectionalist feminists either. I don’t want to offend any Karens or any gammons, or any men who consider themselves feminists or any women who don’t. I don’t want to offend any old people who voted for Brexit or TikTok teens who didn’t get a choice. I don’t want to offend any Trans or cis people, or any members of the LGBTQ+ community or any heterosexual people, or any member of the human race for that matter. I especially don’t want to offend any dogs or cats or other assorted pets, or wild animals or plants or possible alien life (let’s not forget about them).
I want to run through a brief history of TERFdom – yes, that is my own neologism – with little of my own opinions, and then pose some questions that I’ll leave up to you to come up with answers for yourself (though, just to avoid any unwanted friend requests, if you are transphobic it’s likely I will not want to be friends with you). The timeline will start with the first known use of the term “TERF”, in 2008, and then go on from there to provide a brief history of both the term, the surrounding controversies and the people involved. I’m not particularly well-placed to offer any bold or immutable opinions on this topic, though I do love making a good timeline and running my mouth so here I am. Plus I couldn’t resist the historical pun – History of Serfdom/TERFdom, get it? Anyway, I thought I’d clear all that up from the get-go, and seeing as though discussion on whether or not “TERF” is a slur has been debated just this year it seemed fair to try and limit its offensiveness. I am electing to use the term as a descriptive label of someone’s beliefs/ideologies, similar to how serious academics use the term “Communist” instead of how shouty Americans from the McCarthy era used it.
Also, you may have noticed I’ve done this in a slightly tongue-in-cheek way, I hope that it comes across as cheeky rather than vulgar. I want it to look like a light pushing of the tongue into the side of my cheek whilst I raise my eyebrows slightly and look a little mischievous, instead of looking like I’m jamming my tongue repeatedly into the side of my cheek whilst making a blowjob motion with my hand. And if any of this offends you: fuck off.
Viv Smyth, a freelance writer and sometimes Guardian Australia employee, posts on her blog on the 19th August under the pseudonym “tigtog” with the title: An apology and a promise. In this blogpost she apologised for a previous post in which she discussed the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (a radical feminist festival known as Michfest). Her apology was due to the fact she had promoted this event without including/realising that it had a Trans-exclusionary policy. She then goes on to make a promise that “I will not give any trans-exclusionary feminist event any promotion here in the future”. Going on to say:
"I am aware that this decision is likely to affront some trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs), but it must be said: marginalising trans women at actual risk from regularly documented abuse /violence in favour of protecting hypothetical cis women from purely hypothetical abuse/violence from trans women in women-only safe-spaces strikes me as horribly unethical as well as repellently callous."
This is the earliest known time that the term “TERF” was used.
Julie Bindel – a journalist and writer, and co-founder of the campaign Justice For Women – released this as a statement after “trans bullies were hounding me” due to comments Bindel had made previously. In it she says:
"The diagnosis of childhood GID follows old-fashioned notions of what constitutes appropriate behaviour for those assigned to the sex classes of male and female. It is precisely this idea that certain distinct behaviours are appropriate for males and females that underlies feminist criticism of the phenomenon of ‘transgenderism’. This view is shared by a large number of feminists of all ages and backgrounds. As an out lesbian feminist living in a misogynistic, anti-lesbian world, I challenge gender norms each and every day. Growing up female, but refusing to conform, I have been severely punished and threatened for doing so… I have offered to speak with, both privately and publicly, to various members of the transsexual community involved in this campaign against me. Whilst a small number have accepted, the majority have refused. I believe that they are not interested in hearing what I have to say, but merely wish to use me as their ‘whipping girl’, and to take all of their anger out on me. I refuse to be a scapegoat, or to be silenced by them."
She has since been labelled a TERF, however denies being transphobic.
The first half of 2013 saw Trans activist Red Durkin launch a petition to boycott Michfest due to a policy they had known as “womyn-born womyn”. Lisa Vogel, one of the festival’s founders had defended this policy almost ten years prior in 2005, stating:
"having a space for women, who are born women, to come together for a week, is a healthy, whole, loving space to provide for women who have that experience. To label that as transphobic is, to me, as misplaced as saying the women-of-color tent is racist”
She again defended this policy.
The Delaware State Senate passed Bill SB 97 by a vote of 11-7 on 6th June. Sarah McBride – a trans woman who in 2020 is running for a seat in the Delaware Senate for the Democratic Party – is someone who advocated for and helped to get this Bill passed. The Gender Identity Nondiscrimination Act that Delaware now has protects Transgender people from discrimination based on their chosen gender.
On 31st July in the US, one Aimee Stephens left a note to her employer telling them that she was Trans and was going to undergo gender reassignment surgery. She was fired a fortnight later. Stephens decided to sue the funeral home she worked at on the grounds that this was discrimination. This court case, R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, would eventually make its way to the Supreme Court and was decided in 2020 – more on this later.
In September, Julie Bindel decided to cancel her appearance at a University of Manchester student debate due to allegedly receiving death and rape threats from other people, some of which were handed to the police. A Trans representative from the LGBTQ Society held a demonstration against her appearance.
Bindel wrote an article for the Guardian in 2004 called Gender benders, beware, in which she ended the article writing:
"I don't have a problem with men disposing of their genitals, but it does not make them women, in the same way that shoving a bit of vacuum hose down your 501s does not make you a man."
She claimed these statements to be “jokes” after cancelling her appearance in Manchester.
The subreddit /r/GenderCritical, which would later go on to become an online home to TERFs and other extreme feminists, was created on 20th September. Not ten days after it was created the subreddit was beginning to show anti-trans signs such as posts like: “A question on Intersex people”, as well as links to articles about other feminists receiving death threats for their, supposedly, anti-trans stance.
Equality Michigan, an LGBT advocacy group, boycotted Michfest. Many other LGBTQ+ groups joined in this boycott, however some also withdrew their support for the boycott after more consideration and having been persuaded that the festival was in-fact “rooted in our core value of inclusiveness”.
The 40th anniversary of Michfest was held. Lisa Vogel announced that it would also be the final Michfest, she wrote in a Facebook post on 21st April “There have been struggles; there is no doubt about that. This is part of our truth, but it is not--and never has been--our defining story.”
On 24th April Diane Anderson-Minshall wrote an article about Michfests’ closure, both defending and blaming the festival and its founders. She wrote:
"TERFs want you to believe the women who attend Michfest — you know, those average lesbian feminists — don’t want or accept trans women as “real” women, don’t feel safe around trans women, and certainly don’t want to share their “sacred space” with them. All of that is bullshit… You want the truth. And here it is: Lisa Vogel is wrong. The TERFs are wrong. The number of women who actually identify as or with the TERFs is actually very, very small but disproportionately vocal. And when one has power, like Cathy Brennan, it can do a lot of damage. Vogel is a different kind of TERF than Brennan. She sounds peaceful and reasonable, and she’s spent 40 years cultivating a festival that has bordered on sheer wonder at times."
A British YouTuber, amateur competitive boxer, and lesbian feminist, Magdalen Berns posted a video to YouTube titled: “There Is No Such Thing as a Lesbian With a Penis!”
This was the first video she posted to her channel. In the video she outlines her views on biological sex and on gender, on which she says: “If you’re born with a penis, and balls, you’re male. You don’t get ‘assigned’ reproductive organs. Males are defined by their biological sex organs.” The video drew attention very quickly from both likeminded people and those with opposing views. She would continue posting videos for the next two years, reiterating her radical feminism and discussing both TERFs and Trans people.
Trans activists punched and kicked a sixty year old woman at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park in September/October whilst she was filming an event called “What is Gender?”. The incident is thought to have been caused by conflicting views, and was accompanied by people shouting “When the TERFs attack, we fight back”, and signs saying “Trans-Misogyny IS STILL MISOGYNY”.
Helen Steel – known for the McLibel case, as well as being an environmental activist – was “surrounded” by dozens of trans activists at the Anarchist Bookfair in November “who would not leave me alone”, and shouted abuse such as “ugly terf, fucking terf scum, bitch, fascist and more.”
On 14th November, Owen Jones – a writer/journalist and self-proclaimed feminist and socialist – Tweeted “If 'TERF' [Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist] is unacceptable, let's just use 'transphobe' and 'transphobic', problem solved.” With many people commenting that this misses the point.
Catherine Bennett – a Guardian journalist – published an article called: “Bullies everywhere delight in coming up with new insults”, on the 19th November. In this she discussed the debate over the term “TERF” as a slur, as well as speaking about the greater debate between the Trans community and TERFs and the toxicity surrounding it too. She takes the side that the use of language like this is a “bullying tool, [that] has already succeeded in repressing speech – and maybe even research – “transphobe”, while being less snarl-friendly, has the advantage of implying that any child-related caution – about, say, lack of research on the longer term outcomes of early transition – could never be reasoned”.
Magdalen Berns posted a video on 2nd March titled “Re: What is a TERF?” in response to a Trans YouTuber, Riley J Dennis. In the video Berns repeatedly calls Riley, a Trans woman, “he/him” throughout whilst criticising Riley’s points abouts TERFs, feminism, and gender.
Magdalen Berns posted a video on 26th April with an infamous TERF activist who goes by the pseudonym ‘Posie Parker’. They discuss “free speech, feminism, and Mermaids UK” (Mermaids UK is a British charity that supports Trans people, in particular Trans youths).
On 29th April 2018, Catherine Bennett published a second piece on trans activists and the debate between the Trans community and TERFs, titled: “Violent misogyny is unfortunately not confined to the internet’s ‘incels’”. In this she outlined incidents and quoted trans activists as saying “die in a fire terf scum” and someone “expressed the wish to ‘fuck up some terfs’”.
After J. K. Rowling Liked a Tweet (which was later claimed to be accidental) that made a joke about Trans women being “men in dresses”, an article was published on 28th March via the website them.us by Katelyn Burns asking the question “Is J.K. Rowling Transphobic?”. By the end of the article she says: “A white cis woman [Rowling] has shattered our trust and deeply disappointed us. But then again, we’re used to it.”
Magdalen Berns posted an initial video in April of 2017 informing her viewers that she had been diagnosed with a brain tumour. She again posted a video on 7th October (2018) with an update on her illness. In the video she says:
"I think it will be alright, I’m going to fight… that’s all I can do really. And at least, you know, if I lose this way it weren’t a man that brought me down was it. It was just a random thing… I still stuck it to the man the whole way, all my life, and I’m going to continue as long as I can."
The Guardian published an op-ed on 17th October on the debate over the “advance [of] trans equality without harming the interests of women”, whilst admitting that the “toxic debate has made it harder”’. It nicely sums up much of the debate between TERFs and Trans rights activists, pointing to specific circumstances where rights and protections may come into conflict and the difficulties surrounding the toxicity of the debate.
"UK law acknowledges circumstances where there is a conflict of interests between trans women and other women. The Equality Act allows for single-sex services to exclude trans people where this is “a proportionate means of meeting a legitimate aim”, such as in rape support services. While some trans activists have argued for these exemptions to be abolished, some feminists believe they should be strengthened. The Guardian supports trans equality and believes reform of the Gender Recognition Act could form part of this… Different countries apply the law in different ways. In Ireland, for example, transgender prisoners have been allocated according to natal sex. The UK has a far larger population than any European country with self-declaration; this nation has 20 times more people behind bars than Ireland. Any new law must not give violent or controlling male prisoners a new opportunity to dominate women by changing gender and transferring to a female prison. Trans organisations say such fears are exaggerated and born of prejudice and hatred. Transphobia must be opposed. But misogyny too must be challenged… The UK may be moving towards a situation where the default is single-gender spaces rather than single-sex spaces, with organisations such as the Girl Guides amending their practices. The implications of this shift should not be underestimated… This is a complex issue that society needs to consider thoughtfully… Social media have unhelpfully amplified the voices at both extremes of this argument. The current divisions are troubling."
The article does not once use the term “TERF”.
In late January, Sarah McBride – the Trans politician in Delaware – was hounded by two British women in Washington D.C. claiming that McBride was “championing ‘the rights of men to access women in women’s prison.’” One of the women involved was Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull, also known online as ‘Posie Parker’. The incident was livestreamed by the two women. Both women claimed to be feminists and have now also been labelled as TERFs. If Sarah McBride wins her election race to become a state senator in November 2020 she will be the highest-ranking transgender official in the US.
In the weeks of August and early September many amicus briefs were submitted to the case of Aimee Stephens – the trans woman suing her previous employer for discrimination. Including one from the Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF), which on page five of its submission said:
"Simply, Aimee Stephens is a man. He wanted to wear a skirt while at work, and his “gender identity” argument is an ideology that dictates that people who wear skirts must be women."
This is not the first time that WoLF has been seen as holding a TERF ideology.
The Supreme Court began hearing oral arguments on 8th October.
On 13th September the YouTuber Magdalen Berns died from glioblastoma, aged 36.
After losing her job at the Centre for Global Development think tank in December for a series of Tweets that were deemed to be anti-trans, Maya Forstater, a tax expert, received support from many other feminists after she had argued:
"framing the question of transgender inclusion as an argument that male people should be allowed into women's spaces discounts women's rights to privacy and is fundamentally illiberal (it is like forcing Jewish people to eat pork)"
One of the people who Tweeted support was author J. K. Rowling. She Tweeted:
On March 10th Helen Steel – known for the McLibel case – Tweeted:
“There was something very cult like about the chanting by trans activists which greeted us outside the @LabWomenDec #ExpelMe rally last night. The only chant that didn't involve repeating what the megaphone said was where they shouted "Fuck Off" in answer to Julie Bindel's name… And while they tell us not to 'misgender' (also known as correctly sex) because it causes distress, apparently they didn't consider that it might cause distress to create the smell of smoke inside a packed meeting hall in the shadow of Grenfell Tower”
Showing she was still taking her TERF stance, and showing she was still being harangued/harassed for it.
Aimee Stephens died on 12th May, only a month before from the Supreme Court’s decision.
In late June, reddit.com decided to ban the subreddit /r/GenderCritical – which had 64,400 members – due to discriminatory anti-trans sentiments repeatedly showing up on the subreddit.
The US Supreme Court came to the 6-3 landmark decision, on 15th June, that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 extends to protect transgender people from employment discrimination. Meaning Aimee Stephens changed history. She was added to the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor by Stonewall the same month.
On the 3rd November during the US 2020 elections, Sarah McBride won her campaign on the 1st Delaware State Senate District with 73.3% of the vote. When sworn in she will become the highest ranking transgender official in the US.
So, after going through a brief history of TERFdom, what do you think? Did you enjoy the ride through the shit-slinging and infighting? Do you think that TERF’s are in the wrong? Will you refuse to call a Trans person by their preferred pronoun? Do you think it’s all a big right-wing hoax perpetrated by incels? (oh dear, I’ve used another possibly offensive term). Does it make you roll your eyes or make you want to stand at the barricades with placards and well-rehearsed chants? If you’re a TERF yourself, have you changed your mind or become more emboldened? Is J. K. Rowling a TERF? And do you care if she is? Do you think we should “Kill a TERF!” or how about deny legal rights to Trans people?
Joking aside (it is the conclusion after all), there have been many names and many people’s stories shared above, some Trans, some TERFs. I hope it remains mostly balanced – even though I have my own views on the matter. What I have tried to do is to outline the stories of just some of the individuals involved in what J. K. Rowling described as “TERF wars”, some of whom are very high profile, others not high profile enough. By illuminating these stories, I wanted to show that no person, no ideology, no story is simple. Rushed judgments and rash decisions are almost never the right ones. It took twelve years for everything above to happen and most of the people mentioned have been discussing these topics for much longer than that. Now it’s time for you to make your mind up on what you think of it all. Just please don’t decide quickly. The question which I think is most important to the readers of this article, namely feminists, if you’re a TERF or Trans or neither, is whether as feminists we want to accept radical and extreme ideologies – such as wanting to harm someone because they’re trans, or wanting to harm someone because they’re a TERF – as part of the feminist movement. Should we denounce all forms of fringe and hateful rhetoric and actions from standing beside us in the fight for feminism? And in doing so, view behaviours or beliefs like that as directly against the very nature of the equality which feminists promote.
Being a TERF is to want to exclude people from the feminist conversation, often through pernicious language and actions. This ideology both promotes a form of extreme feminism whilst also targets other feminists (many Trans people) in the process by taking part in gatekeeping the feminist cause. The counterproductive nature of limiting the expansion of a movement is surely mind-boggling to anyone who’s taken part in a protest – more voices = louder shouting. There are clear and well-trodden paths to promoting feminism without undermining Trans-rights and without denigrating Trans people. A want to exclude Trans people, or any people for that matter, from the feminist cause seems not only a bad strategic move but against the very guiding force that probably made TERFs become feminists in the first place: equality. Even if one does accept many TERFs’ fears about the erosion of certain protected characteristics it is impossible to not see the harm that is also caused by holding such an extreme and intolerant ideology. And yes, the same may be said for other feminists and/or Trans people who wave signs calling for violence towards TERFs. There are people on all sides of the political spectrum who, if they had it their way, would have the term “culture war” not simply be a metaphor. Should these people have a place within feminism? Extremism by its very definition seems the opposite of level-headed and considered ideology. A synonym for extremism is fanaticism – excessive single-minded zeal. But, perhaps being extreme is the only way change gets made. Killing oneself in front of a king’s horse was quite the extreme act. Although this act wasn’t focused on the violence or hatred towards others, do bare this in mind.
If there’s one takeaway from this, one thing to ruminate on, it’s whether we want extreme and fringe and hateful rhetoric to be our bedrock or what we stand against. Whether as a movement or as individuals we reject or accept “the extreme”. Whether we choose compassion or anger to fuel the cause. Viv Smyth was the first bullet-point on my timeline that started twelve years ago and opened with a humble blogpost entitled An apology and a promise. In my view, if politics was to be conducted through a series of compassionate, sincere and meaningful apologies and promises then historic injustices to women, minority groups, the working-class and all others would be able to rectified peacefully and for good – perhaps slowly, but eventually. Being compassionate, sincere and meaningful begins with oneself. So now it’s time to choose: to be extreme, or not to be extreme? That is my question.