Disclaimer: I accept that, like every other group on the planet, transwomen have a plurality of theoretical standpoints. I appreciate many are wholly supportive of the movement to liberate women, and I count many amongst my friends who I listen to and learn from daily. This article refers to the dominant viewpoints voiced on Twitter.
How many times a day do I get called a TERF? Too many to count. How many times have I seen ‘You’re a TERF your opinion is irrelevant?’ Too many to count. Let’s not pretend that TERF is an objective description of a theoretical standpoint. It’s an insult. A term of abuse meant to undermine, dismiss and erase radical feminist women’s voices.
TERF is an acronym for ‘Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists’. But what does this mean? The emphasis is meant to be on exclusion – an intentional act – and the implication is that this is based on prejudice or willfull discrimination. A bad thing. But a closer look exposes the flaws in this definition. Excluded from what? Feminism? Womanhood? Radical feminist analysis maintains that feminism is the movement of women to liberate women from oppression, and that female biological reality is a defining aspect of women’s experience of oppression. This does not exclude transwomen on the basis of prejudice or discrimination any more than it does men. TERF also obfusticates the fact that the vast majority of radical feminists believe that ALL people should work together to end the oppression of women and that many believe once transwomen transition they experience much of the same prejudice and discrimination that women born women do. In reality, TERF is a meaningless term based on the desire to silence radical feminist voices. Ultimately it’s misogynistic.
So, why can’t we all just get along?
1 ) Insults, lies, silencing & demonisation
So, we’ve covered that every time TERF is used it’s meant to insult. We know you know this. Not a good start to productive dialogue, eh? You’d think that trans people who identify as women would be understanding and open to women analysing the oppression they face even if they disagree. Instead we are shut down. A woman only has to be designated ‘RadFem’ for anything she says to be valued as worthless or for her to be told she is unwelcome in conversations. How can this not be interpreted as mirroring the behaviour of patriarchal men who seek to silence us?
Jokingly, many RadFems have started using the term ‘radfemphobia’. In actuality it’s not a joke. RadFems are consistently exposed to true prejudice and bigotry – that is being ignored, excluded or written off just because they are known to be RadFem. Cliques form just to stand against them. Lies are told constantly that are swallowed up by the readily waiting baying crowds. I’m yet to see another group face such hostility from either men or other women.
The demonisation goes so far that the accepted narrative is radical feminist’s purpose/motivation is to attack transwomen. But the clue’s in the title. Radical feminists want to end women’s oppression, this is the ONLY purpose or motivation. We see women’s oppression and work backwards in figuring out the actions needed to take to counteract it or the beliefs that underpin it that need challenging. Again, you might not agree with the analysis but misrepresenting the motivation is both disingenuous and manipulative. Maintaining that the analysis exists to oppress ‘you’ says more about your self-obsession than radical feminism.
Radical feminists started using ‘gender’ in the 1960’s (before this it was rarely used). The purpose of distinguishing sex and gender was to illustrate ‘that the social condition of being a woman or being a man is not the same thing as, and does not follow ‘naturally’ from, the biological condition of being female or male’ (http://www.trouble.myzen.co.uk/?page_id=37). Note that doesn’t mean that males can become women or vice versa. It means that the social role ‘woman’ is imposed as a result of a person being female, as Simone de Beauvior encapsulated in her ‘one is not born but becomes a woman’ quote. So woman/female and man/male are inseparable, although enlightened and/or empowered individuals may be able to throw off some of the social impositions. But what this really means is that ‘gender’ is a hierarchy telling us how we ‘should’ behave based on our sex and with all things ‘feminine’ devalued it serves as the patriarchy’s greatest tool to keep women subordinate.
Claims of a female brain, essence, feeling or gender identity are essentialist. They appeal to the idea that there is a ‘woman’ beyond her experience of oppression based on her sex and back up age-old patriarchal beliefs of woman as ‘other’. The latter, gender identity, is oft proposed as a subjective experience. In reality, it is the most dangerous proposition because denying it is an affront to the dominant belief in liberal individualism. But an appeal to gender identity strongly relies on a preconception of what it means to feel like/be a woman. What else can this be based on other than cultural influences? This is the result of stereotypes and misogyny.
By promoting transition whether operative or not (excluding those experiencing BDD) trans reifys the connections between gender and sex rather than subverting them. Revolutionary would be throwing off the gender shackles and being whoever the fuck you wanted to be regardless of the body you find yourself in.
When transwomen change the way they wear their head hair, remove their body hair, have cosmetic surgery, breast implants or a cavity they name a ‘vagina’ created they are reducing women to their bodies and the social norms imposed on those bodies.
By insisting they are or need to become women, transwomen validate archaic ideas about the female sex. It is true that many women also do this to function within the world but that does not negate the impact. Wanting to end women’s oppression demands an acknowledgement of this, as RadFems do. Many transwomen also seek to find ways to express their experiences that do not negatively impact on women. It can be done.
4) Erasing women
Women have been oppressed for as long as we have recorded history, and at 54% of the population it’s the most widespread oppression of them all. Our foremothers fought over the last century for all the rights and advances that we have made. So when we’re told that reproductive rights etc. are not women’s issues it hurts. Not just on an individual level but the movement itself. It puts huge (inaccurate) obstacles in a path that still has a long way to go.
In recent days the name of the ‘Vagenda’ blog and talking about periods has been labelled exclusionary and transphobic. Women have fought for centuries to not only have a voice but to be able to talk about issues that affect females openly, without being perceived as unimportant or taboo. As someone far more sensible than me said “If 99.9% of the people affected are women it’s pretty safe to call it a woman’s issue.” These are women’s issues. They are issues that the feminist movement *needs* to focus on. Because if feminists don’t then no-one else will. That’s kinda the point of feminism. Silencing women on these issues, which includes excluding them from feminist discourse, is misogyny.
Women are being silenced. The new ‘rallying cry’ of transphobia serves only to push us back, erasing all the progression that has been made. The oppressed, those who are socialised to believe ‘everyone else first, me last’, are being told that again. And many of them are buying it. Worst still women talking about their female experience and analysis of their oppression are targeted for attack whilst the true transphobes are ignored. “All the transphobia I have experienced has been from TERFs”. So are you suggesting radical feminists are the ones who beat, rape and kill transwomen? No, I thought not. Why are a small group of women with little or no influence the target of such a campaign?
So. To be honest I don’t care how you live your life. I don’t care what you want to call yourself or how you dress. I don’t care if some women’s groups or spaces welcome you with open arms. I’m happy to stand next to you to fight for your legal rights, appropriate healthcare and safety, which I believe all human beings are entitled to.
Where I start to have issues is where you shut down discussion when the needs and interests of women and transwomen become complicated. Where you insult me and say that your needs matter above all else. Where your words and beliefs silence women’s voices, erase women’s reality and contribute to women’s oppression. Which in all honesty, whether transwoman or liberal feminist, I would have thought you’d understand.