TERF: It’s time for you to drop this expression of misogyny from your vocabulary.

Welcome to what I hope will be the only article I ever write on the concept of so-called “trans exclusionary radical feminists” (“TERFs”), an alleged contingent of fringe-belief feminists who reportedly hate transgender people. This article, in its pursuit of reason, will issue its readers a few challenges. However, they are challenges that all sane and reasonable people should be able to accept.

The first challenge is this: if we are friends in some capacity, whether in the real or virtual world, read this article to the end before you choose to “unfriend” me. Your fair judgment of me should be based on my actual views and not on views that someone else has invented and pinned on me. If we’re real-life friends, and you’re confused about what I believe, I further invite you to grab a cup of coffee with me and ask me absolutely anything you like. I have nothing to hide and I’ve never had anything to hide.

This is not because I require everyone’s friendship. To the contrary, if you’re a knee-jerk unfriender, then I probably don’t need you in my life. It’s because I have faith that the people I’ve chosen to surround myself with are up to the task.

Are you ready to hear my other challenges? Are you scared? Don’t be scared. Come bravely with me on this journey.

Here are the totally intimidating things (that’s sarcasm) that I’m going to ask of you:

– Confront your unconscious biases.
– Partake of the forbidden fruit of knowledge (i.e., read).
– Beware of ad hominem and strawman fallacies.

Let’s talk about unconscious biases. We all have them, however liberal and cool we may think we are. Here’s a set of now-famous tests from Harvard that reveal our unconscious biases about everything from age to weight to race.

Sex is one of the things we have unconscious biases about. It’s those biases that cause us to think of an opinionated male as assertive and an opinionated female as bossy or shrill. The term “TERF,” which is in practice applied mainly to women, appeals to that very bias.

Here’s another one of my crazy challenges: I challenge you to concede that it’s ok for women to be opinionated. That being opinionated, in and of itself, doesn’t make us objectionable people.

The power in the word “TERF” relies partly on the fear of another scary word contained within the acronym: “radical.” But “radical” in this context doesn’t mean what you think it means. It means “root.” Note that the square root symbol in mathematics is called both a “root” and a “radical,” and that a Rancid song, as well as the Jimmy Cliff song to which it alludes, both refer to political allies as “roots radicals.”

Roots movements are movements that wish to get to the causes (i.e., the roots) of problems rather than to treat to their symptoms. Remember when republican men said feminists needed to support Sarah Palin because she was a woman? And we said no, we want to address the system that causes the inequality, not chip away at the inequality by promoting the advancement of a single individual? That’s addressing the root insead of the symptom.

As a result, roots movements sometimes call for the overhaul of a system that’s deemed too broken to fix. An example would be to call for socialism instead of reforms to capitalism. That’s how the word “radical” starts to take on the connotation of “extreme”—the actual overhaul of a system, if accomplished, would be a more extreme solution than the reform of it.

It’s easy to cling to the “extreme” connotation of the word when you’re repeatedly told that radical feminists are mean and bigoted. But that’s all part of appealing to your latent bias against females, also known as misogyny. Women are ok, your monkey brain thinks, as long as they don’t get too uppity. Too opinionated. Too independent. As long as they stay away from unattractive, extreme behavior like growing out their armpit hair or forgetting about men. As long as they know their place.

As it turns out, though, being interested in the roots of female oppression does not make you mean. Despite what you’ve heard, there are zero radical feminists calling for violence or harassment toward transgender people. Don’t take my word for it; confirm for yourself by reading the words of roots feminists (not their detractors). Are you condemning books you haven’t read? Do you know who else does that? Young-Earth Christians and the antagonists of Fahrenheit 451 are a couple of examples.

No, radical feminists are merely feminists who investigate the roots of women’s oppression. As it turns out, their research locates the nexus of that oppression in biologically female* bodies, citing the many practices that solely or disproportionately target those bodies (like sex trafficking and FGM). Roots feminists also investigate how society’s assignment of sex stereotypes to females reifies and justifies this sex-based oppression.

This isn’t hateful. It just isn’t.

Not so long ago, it wasn’t even controversial—remember the backlash when Barbie thought math class was “tough”? But today, some activists, mainly trans women, object to the very existence of this entire forty-year-old field of study. Trans women have two concerns, as far as I can tell: that analysis of female bodies leaves them out, and that without some endorsement of sex stereotypes they’re left with little claim to womanhood.

But the feminist study of sexed bodies and sex stereotypes predates current transgender activists’ concern with “gender expression” by decades and has nothing to do with it. In fact, that’s exactly the problem.

Some transgender activists want feminists to renounce all interest in biological sex and replace it with an interest in gender expression. They theorize that people with vaginas aren’t oppressed; rather, people who wear lipstick are oppressed. Cool theory, but must it preclude investigation into all other theories? Suppose we agree that “woman” is a social role that includes both people born with female bodies and people born with male bodies. Why should the latter control the discourse of the former? Must we fall back on the perennial and regressive tradition of asking female people not to talk about their bodies? Let’s not let our fervor for supporting one group of people cause us to completely lose empathy for another.

Personally, I will continue to be interested in and fight for the rights of females, and I will not be shamed for that. As Maya Angelou said: “It’d be stupid not to be on my own side.”

Radical feminists don’t hate trans women. They simply aren’t talking about trans women. It is in fact trans men, not trans women, who fall under their realm of research. So “trans-exclusionary” is not simply beside the point, but a misnomer. The study of female bodies includes all of those who have them, including those who are trans.

We’re all very upset about transphobia, but there isn’t any to see here.

Now, let’s talk about the forbidden fruit of knowledge.

There’s an easy way to determine whether or not I’m right about all of this. Just read the work of radical feminists. Dig beyond the tweets and the comments section of Huffpo and find the primary sources.

Be advised, though, that this fruit is forbidden indeed, as discovered recently by feminist vlogger and sex educator Laci Green. She asked the world: “radfems out there, can you help me understand what specifically about the politics of gender/identity you find problematic?”

For the highly scandalous crime of asking people for information, Laci was immediately called a TERF, a nazi, and pro-rape; had her family harassed; and was treated to a rant from an Everyday Feminism author accusing her of delivering “transphobia on a platter.” Read the links and take note: these threats were directed at her not for espousing a particular position on the topic, which as far as I know she has not yet done, but for the specific act of asking for the information.

This is unfortunately not unusual. Here, Katie Herzog, a journalist for The Stranger, finds herself the recipient of “vitriol, hate mail, and threats” for inquiring into the lives of seven people who regretted transitioning and transitioned back to their birth sex. Even as her article itself denounces “TERFs,” the very act of asking questions places her among them for many readers.

And there’s more. Here’s a website documenting the harassment received by people promoting or asking about the radical feminist position. High points: “TERFs can choke on my girl dick” and “What if someone traced [her IP address] and killed her… I’d do that but I’m a bit far.” Here’s another. From that one: “I hope you get fucking skinned, very slowly, whilst a hot iron melts the skin back onto you, just to peel it off again. i hope someone breaks into your house and shits in your fucking mouth. i hope someone breaks in and murders you so brutally that they can’t even identify the body.”

This obsession for sniffing out and punishing “TERFs” is ugly business. And it has misogyny written all over it.

Context confirms that again and again. If that’s not enough, consider that radical feminists consider the word a slur. Suppose you became aware of a word for African Americans who hold a particular civil rights philosophy. If they informed you that the word is racist and is often used against them in anger, would you continue to use it?

Then don’t continue to use or condone a hateful word for women.

Creating gendered insults for “misbehaving” women is an old and established tradition: feminazi, bitch, slut, whore, harpy, nag, shrew, battle-axe, cunt. “Such a nasty woman.” “She was warned and nevertheless she persisted.” Will we, at some point, outgrow it?

But let’s talk about those despised feminist views. If there’s something offensive among the positions of roots feminism, what exactly is it?

Is it the idea that only female children are subjected to female genital mutilation? Is it the idea that women are not inherently bad at math? Is it the notion that oppression is a structural, rather than an individual, phenomenon? Is it the idea, articulated by novelist Chimamanda Ngozi, that the experiences of trans women are not identical to the experiences of natal women? Can you dissect and discuss those points on their own merit, instead of merely associating their proponents with hate (ad hominem) or accusing them of views they haven’t espoused (strawman, or actually, straw feminist)?

And are women whose opinions are not in lock-step with your own really worthy of driving out of town with torches?

Really?

Some ex-friends of mine continue to talk to an accused pedophile caught with what police called “a great deal” of child porn, but have deemed me untouchable, for holding – actually for being accused of holding, as they did not check with me – ultimately unremarkable feminist views. That’s misogyny.

When opinionated women are worse than pedophiles, that’s what misogyny looks like.

Instead of taking up your torch and falling in line with this witch hunt, investigate and respond to what radical feminists are actually saying. Can you refute their positions? Great! Your well-thought-out, considered responses can only enhance the dialog and add to the world’s greater knowledge. Your careless slinging of thought-terminating epithets, not so much.

“Ok, fine,” I hear you thinking. “Maybe you have a point. Maybe trans women aren’t identical to natal women. But isn’t it mean to point that out? Doesn’t that hurt their feelings? Why not just keep your mouth shut about it?”

Interesting idea, but unlike almost all of you, I was not given that option. I had the misfortune of being married to an unhappy transitioning person who demanded to know my innermost feelings on the issue and then became angry when faced with them. Dishonesty and evasion are not options when you’re married. At least, not the way I do marriage.

Blessed are you who were called upon only to stand on the sidelines and cheer, instead of spending night after night into the wee hours of the morning being grilled with questions for which no answers would be deemed acceptable enough. And then publicly outed – for what exactly? For thought crime. For spending fifteen years in a relationship that everyone in sight (including my ex) considered a heterosexual one, and not coming away from that experience with the conviction that it had actually been a lesbian relationship all along.

I supported my ex emotionally and financially, gave gifts of clothes and manicures, counseled excruciating spirals of depression, weathered the loss of much that I held dear, led the charge on preferred pronouns, and ultimately watched my ex completely drop out of a relationship that I tried in vain to hold together, but for the crime of perceiving, and not lying about my perceptions in private conversations, I was accused of “abuse.”

And then there’s the cruel little fact that only one of us is expected to forever keep quiet about those fifteen years (a third of my life, for what it’s worth). If my ex says that relationship was always a lesbian one, everyone else must revise the version of history they recall in favor of that version. But if I want to speak of what I experienced, my voice is to be muzzled. How candid and honest do you think I can be while “correcting” my speech to reflect the views of someone who isn’t me? How much meaning is preserved when language is coerced?

Consider how much my history changes, and how little sense it makes, when forced into its revisionist version:

– My wife and I got married in Indiana when same-sex marriage was illegal.
– I considered myself a lesbian when we met, but out of respect for her, I removed a pride sticker from my car so she wouldn’t think I wasn’t serious about her and might leave her for a woman.
– I wanted to go to gay bars when we first got together, but she refused because she said she’d feel like a tourist because she wasn’t gay.
– She ended up at a strip bar with her dad when it was assumed she should be included in a stag party with the other men.
– I had to take a pregnancy test when we thought she’d gotten me pregnant.
– She used to be very proud of how long she could grow her beard.

None of that sounds at all like what happened from my vantage point.

Perhaps my ex made a mistake by spending 40 years accepting male names and pronouns and presenting male to the world and entering into a heterosexual marriage and calling it one. But that mistake was not my mistake, and it is not my job to help cover it up.

Asking me to modulate my voice to reflect another’s reality is asking me to be complicit in my own silencing. To lose my voice, my story. To lose fifteen years of my life like it never happened.


* I use the scientific definition of the word “female,” as distinct from “woman” and other terms with potentially social meanings. Here I define a female as an individual with XX chromosomes and the reproductive system (typically ovaries, a uterus and a vagina) ordered to produce ova and gestate a child (whether or not these are functional). If you object to this definition, please feel free to rename such individuals with another word that you prefer. This underlying concept is meaningful, whether or not there is unanimous agreement on the terminology for it.

25 Replies to “TERF: It’s time for you to drop this expression of misogyny from your vocabulary.”

  1. Yes to all of this.

    You already know that we have somewhat similar stories.

    I am done playing along with the fiction when my ex continues to behave like the world’s most entitled white man… but now is automagically a feminist superhero.

    Yeah, no.

  2. Well said. I personally have not experienced anything remotely close to what you have, I still find it both interesting and confusing (must be because I transplanted to the south) you should have been a writer, friend. Looking forward to your next article.

    1. “You should have been a writer”….
      You JUST read her words. She clearly IS a writer of merit. Don’t attempt to box any of us in for not becoming professional, i.e. being paid, for writing.
      There are MANY sisters who have demonstrated that they not only have critical thinking skills and can articulate that into the written word, but they have multiple avenues of expression; some long term they’ve been-or-are paid for and some where no money compensation is involved. The internet has provided a platform where many good writers can be found, so don’t underestimate the power of multiple talents in any of us.

  3. fantastic! I’ve been waiting for someone to articulate this in an informed intellectual style. Well done!

  4. This was beautifully written. Kind while unflinching in its honesty. Im tired of the witch hunt against feminists.

  5. Excellent writing! You have a perspective on this, that many of us don’t. Thank you so much for sharing, YOU ARE, stunning and brave 🙂

  6. This is an outstanding link to point to when you find people using the term “TERF”. I’m chagrined that the perspective has to be spelled out as if spoon feeding the reader while you both were immersed in a vat of molasses. Even then many people have a hard time understanding that “radical” feminism is merely an instance of sound reasoning.

  7. Excellent article. It seems like patriarchy has seized on the trans bandwagon and is using it to undo the gains that feminism – radical feminism, the only real kind – has made since the 1960s. If women can’t talk about their reproductive rights, or FGM, or abortion etc without being labelled ‘trans-exclusive’ and shut down – or because men who self-define as women now get to have a say in exclusively women’s issues such as reproductive rights, FGM and abortion – then we’re in trouble.

  8. Great article. I still don’t get how wanting WBW space is somehow transphobic. We have to have a place to discuss issues important to WBW that trans activists don’t want discussed because they don’t and can’t have these experiences.

    It was great to see a lot of what I have been feeling.

  9. Clarity forever! Thank you so so much for your integrity and refusal to give up your voice and your experience. You have described so many of the feelings I’ve had for decades. Particularly feelings that MTFs were, like their original selves, taking up more space than they deserved. They just don’t leave their chromosomes behind and how could they?

  10. Brilliant. Takes people by the hand and across the stepping stones of a tumultuous river where so many are swept away by the tide.

    Your reasoning would stand on its own accord but your lived experience so markedly points out the dishonesty that is being asked of you. Why should you deny the reality of 15 years of your life to support someone else’s narrative?

  11. Hooray! What a fair summary of the injustice done to many of us when we are “terfed”.

    Overjoyed to have read this today.

    It’s as if we are all learning to get our bearings in a world let loose with ball bearings on the dance floor of gender faux word bullshittery.

  12. Second wave feminist theory is a rock that has helped me as a gay man to describe my experience and offer up guidance in a patriarchal and hetero-dominant world.

    Gender theory on the other hand, is not ready for prime time. Feminist and queer theories do not seek to redefine men and hets in terms that accommodate women and queers. Yet gender theory seeks to redefine women and queers in terms of gender rather than sex in order to center around trans and accommodate them.

    Theory does not work that way., When you are small minority, LGB 10% on a good day, trans .5%, then it is okay to be a theoretical or statistical outlier. Only the insecure of these small groups would require the larger population reconceptualize itself in terms favorable to the minority order to feel safe.

    As a gay man, I am not normative relative to the general population because our numbers are small. Homosexuality is normal because it falls within the distribution regularly. The need to reinterpret normal as normative is a fool’s errand.

    As a feminist, I know that there are women who have been traumatized by men and seek the original safe space, penis-less. This offends the trans women. But in the US where nudity and sex are comingled, fewer clothes equates to greater intimacy. As intimacy increases, then the power to deny consent likewise rises. At a certain point, with sex and nudity closely bound, demanding that women associate in clothing-free spaces with penised people borders up on nonconsensual intimacy.

    Ditto for this notion that we are obligated to have sex with trans people who are gendered the same as our sexual orientation/preference. Every individual has the autonomy to determine their boundaries in the regard to sex and intimacy. Suggesting that anyone is owed sex is offensive to the basic principles of feminism.

  13. Really thoughtful and thought-provoking, Shae. I’ll be thinking about this one and sharing it with others for awhile to come.

  14. Thank you, Marcos, for this statement. “As a feminist, I know that there are women who have been traumatized by men and seek the original safe space, penis-less. This offends the trans women. But in the US where nudity and sex are comingled, fewer clothes equates to greater intimacy. As intimacy increases, then the power to deny consent likewise rises. At a certain point, with sex and nudity closely bound, demanding that women associate in clothing-free spaces with penised people borders up on nonconsensual intimacy.”

    My thoughts – explained so succinctly!

  15. No Sister,

    15 years of your life will not be ‘disappeared’. I see you.
    Thank you for having the courage to share this online.

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