Alice Clarke comments on the rejection of trans women by TERFs, and the damage it does to the intersectional feminist movement. For Issue #19 ‘Secrets’.

Transphobia under the guise of protecting women should be seen for what it is: prejudice and hate. 

‘TERF’ stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist. Though many who come under the label claim it is a slur, it is not. It’s no secret that TERFs don’t view trans women as ‘real women’, but they go further and suggest they threaten the safety and rights of cis women.  This faction of ‘feminism’ hides behind a mask of reason, science and the prioritisation of women’s rights. But, their tactics are better-described as intolerant and fear mongering. 

The irony of the TERFs’ crusade is that by defining ‘women’ as vagina-owning people, they reduce us to vessels of reproduction. Being a woman is so much more than that, and it does not require a vagina. Framing the inclusion of trans women in the feminist movement as a ‘debate’ is reductive. It gives credence to the idea that the existence of trans people can be ‘explained away.’ A feminist stands for equal rights for all women, and we must remember this.

For many, the appropriation and purposeful framing of biology when talking about gender and feminism is convincing. But I would argue that it demonstrates just how insidious and targeted the movement is. Rather than highlighting the similarities in our experience or struggle, it focuses on our differences and exploits ‘otherness.’ One only has to look to history to see where science has been used to legitimise great injustices. Katelyn Burns, a freelance journalist who is transgender herself, notes how scientific racism and eugenics were ‘explained’ through the exploitation of science. 

When trans people’s existence is dragged into dispute, extreme hate speech flourishes and is legitimised. While researching, I came across the organisation Standing for Women. Founder, Posie Parker, amusingly tells the story of how she was ‘radicalised’ by Mumsnet. She then explains how she began to feel oppressed by the presence of transwomen at her local feminist group, whom she refers to as “truckers with bad makeup.” Her nasty, mocking tone exposes these ‘concerned women’ for what they are: transphobes. 

Illustrated by Laura Stewart-Liberty.

The term ‘TERF’ is too forgiving. Posie Parker utilises the very misogyny feminism opposes to attack transwomen, drawing on their appearance and passability. The viciousness and hypocrisy of their ideology is clear. However, Parker is routinely platformed by both mainstream and feminist media outlets alike having been interviewed on TalkRadio and This Morning. Meanwhile, trans people have to fight for a voice.

The most frightening part of their agenda is how palatable it is to much of the public, allowing them to be platformed and frame the ‘debate.’ Existence is not a debate. Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore writes in her defence of TERFs, “female oppression is innately connected to our ability to reproduce.” After centuries of feminists fighting for women to be seen as more than reproductive vessels, TERFs aim to define women by that very ability. I am not denying the historical misogny based on cis women’s biology – however, misogyny adapts and attacks elsewhere. Transphobia and transmisogyny hark back to the very biology based discrimination that TERFs argue is essential to being a woman, questioning trans people’s stability and safety. Not only is this sad, it is ironic. 

The struggles and battles cis women have faced over the years have been about so much more than our reproductive organs and hormones. Trans women face the prejudices cis women do but also the prejudices and hate that come with being transgender; it is therefore important that we emphasise the importance of intersectionality in our feminism. 

Moore asserts that most want trans people to live their lives to the best of their ability and that “living your best life would be one free of male violence.” Implying that trans women would be immune to male violence, she states “male violence is an issue for women”. She is not wrong. However she is damagingly and purposefully illustrating this with a massive oversight. Male violence is an issue for all women. According to the Human Rights Campaign, 72% of anti-LGBT hate crimes were against trans women. Stonewall states that 61% of murdered trans women were sex workers. The life expectancy of black trans women in the US is just 35 years old. 

Illustrated by Phoebe Rodway.

To reduce a woman’s struggle to purely her biological sex is reductive and wrong. Trans women face misogyny and more. Trans women of colour face misogyny, racism and more. The failure to understand and appreciate these intersections needs to be addressed. As a middle class white woman, I know that I face a fraction of the oppression other women face. Our feminism needs to be critical, informed and self-aware.

If our feminism isn’t inclusive and intersectional, then we have failed. Feminists who exclude others and manifest all their energy in doing so do not work to destroy the patriarchy, they work alongside it – maintaining the structures of inequality in society that they claim to fight against. It is our responsibility to be allies to trans women and the wider community, shouldering the burden in defending their womanhood. Having to defend one’s own existence is exhausting and traumatic; it should not be done alone. 

Illustrated by Laura Stewart-Liberty and Phoebe Rodway.

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