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Trans-exclusionary radical feminism

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Spectra and binaries
doing the patriarchy’s work and calling it feminism: the TERF
—erica, ascendant[1]

Trans-exclusionary radical feminism (TERF; also Trans women exclusionary feminism or TWEF[note 1]) is a subgroup of radical feminism characterized by transphobia, especially transmisogyny,[note 2] and hostility to the third wave of feminism. They believe that the only real women™ are those born with a vagina and XX chromosomes.[note 3] They wish to completely enforce the classic gender binary, supporting gender essentialism. The term was likely invented by Hoyden About Town writer Viv Smythe (aka TigTog) in 2008.[2][3]

The term "TERF" is not used by those in the group, who consider it a damnable slur and a term of abuse, and think of themselves as perfectly reasonable radical feminists[4] (and, indeed, the only thing that should be called "feminism"). They tend instead to use terms like "gender critical", which is for the same general public relations reason that white nationalists insistently present themselves as mere "race realists" and tankies try to rebrand Stalin apologetics as "anti-revisionism."

Even sub-branches of feminist thought known to house individual TERFs, including second wave feminists and political lesbians, have spoken out against this exact transphobia and transmisogyny within their own ranks, further demonstrating the distance between TERFs and mainstream feminism.[5][6]

TERFs (and SWERFs) are a tiny subset of feminism,[note 4] but an unduly influential one: legislators seeking feminist input will often get an academic TERF, who will then get transphobia into law.[7] Their doxxing,[8] trolling,[9] picketing,[10] and generally abusive behaviour has earned them the title of "Westboro Baptist Church of feminism"[11]; because they are to feminism what the WBC is to Christianity.[12] They are, in short, a hate group that by no means represents mainstream feminism.[13] By virtue of these facts, the TERF movement can actually be understood as being overtly anti-feminist.[note 5]

Against feminism

Broadly speaking, there are two major points on which TERFs and feminists vehemently disagree — on the question of gender, and on the nature of the third wave of feminism.

Towards binary gender

Transphobic radfems seem to almost universally reject the concept of cisgender privilege, and even the term "cisgender" itself, as somehow demeaning to "women born women" (another controversial term in LGBTQ+ circles that is usually understood as a transphobic shibboleth). In other words, TERFs go so far as to reject any terminology models (for words such as "woman" or "man") that are not based on biological organs, gametes, or chromosomes.[note 3] Thus (re)defining their own movement as that "of women to liberate women from oppression, and that female biological reality is a defining aspect of women's experience of oppression."[note 6]

Academic radical feminism is premised upon the idea that gender is entirely a social construct (and further, that it must be destroyed). Some transgender people maintain, on the other hand, that gender is to some extent intrinsic (that is, even though they were raised as one binary gender, they have always identified as the other,[note 7] and further, trans people often, but not always, want bodies to match). As frequently happens when ideology runs up against someone else's lived experiences, ideologues respond by trying to hammer the problem flat until it fits with what they already believe. As such, there has been,[14] and continues to be,[15][16] a rich current of anti-trans bigotry underlying much radical feminist thought on the issue of gender and transgender people in general. The obvious conflict between the notion that "gender is entirely a social construct" and the slogan "women born women" seems to escape them.

While not all radical feminists would agree, those that critique — "I'm not transphobic, I'm trans critical!"[note 8] — transgender people's existence maintain (generally contrary to both what trans people themselves have said about their own identities, and the medical consensus on gender dysphoria) that trans women are nothing more than "effeminate men" who have been relegated by the patriarchal gender binary to the status of women (whereas trans men, when they bother to mention them at all, are just women trying to claim 'male privilege' for themselves). Thus they slam transgender people in general for "reifying the gender binary." Considering the transgender population is about 1 in 300,[17] accusing the transgender community of reifying nearly any oppressive construct is patently absurd and this is obvious to anyone with the most basic understanding of math and group dynamics. There is no out, however, for transgender people who do not embody the stereotypes of their adopted genders either; lesbian trans women, for example, are dismissed as men who only transitioned in order to infiltrate women's-only spaces.

Cathy Brennan, for example, literally believes not only that trans women are men, but that they are therefore de facto animals who cannot control themselves (all typos in original):[18]

transgender woman are in fact men using an artificialy constructed feminine apperance to exert patriarchy from the inside of feminism and believe it or not, to gain access to womans bathrooms in order to rape them.

Because no logical argument can be made that maintains their beliefs, they instead make memes.[note 9] All of this is highly ironic, since by doing all this they are objectifying women's bodies and saying men are not to blame for their actions because "instincts". Never mind the actual numbers, of course, which show that trans women are one of the groups most likely to be abused and raped.[19][20]

Against the Third Wave

TERFs loathe the third wave of feminism. For a number of reasons, partly their own authoritarianism, partly their own demographic myopia, and partly because they themselves represent a partial embodiment of every stereotype thrown at feminists over the last century and a half, this particular group of radfems have been roundly rejected by nearly every demographic they claim to represent, including, but not limited to, women of color, sex workers, kinksters, most male allies, and, at long last, most every feminist who has come after them. This is in part due to their inability or unwillingness to understand intersectionality.[21]

They also seem to deeply resent that the third-wavers have taken their best ideas — understanding and fighting patriarchal structures and rape culture, the fight for reproductive rights and women's health care — and carried them forward, while leaving the dogmatism and one-size-fits-all theorizing behind, rendering the majority of them irrelevant.

For sex workers, the reason for rejecting that form of feminism is, in large part, because although all sex workers around the world can be said to be exploited (especially in developing countries and anywhere with a strong culture of machismo) and some are indeed held in the industry forcibly against their will (as opposed to economically, in the same vein as minimum wage workers), they nevertheless find the conflation of sex work and slavery to be insulting both to themselves and historical victims of slavery, not to mention counterproductive for helping actual victims of sex slavery (who often, upon freeing themselves, resort to voluntary sex work in absence of other opportunities). Sex educators generally agree and in addition feel that such attitudes deny the agency of people to seek their own pleasure, hiding an underlying puritanism behind concepts like false consciousness.

Back in the 1980s, TERF ideas were at the absolute pinnacle of the tree of ideological soundness and political correctness (early enough that that term was only used approvingly by those supporting it). During this period, transgender people were only beginning to become the subjects of political awareness. They can't quite understand how the same ideas — let alone their actions — in the 2010s are considered odious bigotry.

TERFs and wingnuts

In the 1980s, TERFs successfully brought an end to trans health care access. One TERF operative wrote the government report which led the the revocation of trans medical care under government programs and soon thereafter, private insurers followed suit.

TERFs have been known to collaborate with the Religious Right. Notable instances include Cathy Brennan's collaboration with the Pacific Justice Institute in order to harass a trans woman via death threats, and generally acting as their mouthpiece;[23] and when Sheila Jeffreys said she aligned with the "radical right" regarding transgender legislation.[24]

Their particular transphobic rhetoric also owes a lot to wingnut homophobia in its structure, showcasing the same homosexuality-as-a-choice; when Jeffreys noticed RadFem2012 was cancelled and labelled a hate group, she said:[25] (emphasis added)

Criticism of the practice of transgenderism is being censored as a result of a campaign of vilification by transgender activists of anyone who does not accept the new orthodoxy on this issue.

The bolded part is eerily similar to what the radical right have said about homosexuality; specifically, it resembles a quote about such by neo-Nazi Paul Fromm:[note 10] gender identity as choice instead of something a person is, as well as a massive persecution complex.

TERFs have advocated reparative therapy for transgender people, e.g. Janice Raymond, in her paper Technology on the Social and Ethical Aspects of Transsexual Surgery:

Nonsexist counseling is another direction for change that should be explored. The kind of counseling to “pass” successfully as masculine or feminine that now reigns in gender identity clinics only reinforces the problem of transsexualism. It does nothing to develop critical awareness, and makes transsexuals dependent upon medical-technical solutions. What I am advocating is a counseling that explores the social origins of the transsexual problem and the consequences of the medicaltechnical solution.[26]

This is exactly the same rhetoric used by the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH),[note 11] an anti-LGBT group dedicated to lobbying reparative therapy.[27]

Sex worker-exclusionary radical feminism

Sex worker-exclusionary radical feminism (also known as SWERF) is yet another offshoot of feminism, one that opposes women's participation in pornography and prostitution. The term was coined to match that of TERF, as their memberships overlap.[28] Their ideology also overlaps as both subgroups follow a prescriptive, normative approach to feminism; i.e., telling women what to do — TERFs with their gender, and SWERFs with their sexuality.

SWERFs criticize the objectification and exploitation of women within pornography and the sex industry, as well as the violence and abuse that sex workers frequently suffer.[note 12]

SWERFs typically go completely overboard and dump on sex-workers who chose their profession freely, even in places where it is completely legal and safe, claiming that the sex workers are nothing more than deluded victims (and co-perpetrators) of human trafficking. Much like white supremacists might insist that adoption agencies helping children from the third world find parents in the west are nothing more than deluded extinctionists. This dogmatic hostility to voluntary sex work is known as whorephobia.[11]

Most feminists lie somewhere in the middle - that the issue is not that there are no women who engage in sex work without compromising their personal autonomy, but that such people are not representative of sex workers in general, and that such accounts can be misappropriated by others who have an interest in the ongoing subjugation of women. For these feminists, the issue is not that women should not have the right to voluntarily engage in prostitution, but that more needs to be done to prevent women being forced, manipulated or otherwise obliged to engage in prostitution, e.g. to take just one instance, by providing government funding for medical procedures that are sometimes otherwise funded by sex work.

TERF as a slur

"Terf is a slur" is just their version of "Anti-racist is code for anti-white".
—Elise Tay[29]

Many TERFs claim that "TERF" is a slur — indeed, the website is aimed at claiming solely that.[30] In Feminist Current, Meghan Murphy wrote that "'TERF' isn’t just a slur, it’s hate speech. The term 'TERF' is not just used to smear and deride, but to incite violence."[31] Similarly, in New Statesman, Sarah Ditum suggested that the TERF label encouraged pro-trans feminists to "think it is OK — more than OK, laudable — to hit a 60-year-old woman if she thinks the wrong thing, because thinking the wrong thing is understood to be an act of aggression in itself."[32] The 60-year-old woman in question was punched in retaliation for choking a teen at Speakers' Corner, Hyde Park, London by three protesters while she was waiting to hear about the venue for a meeting to discuss proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act.[33][34]

TERF a label intended to describe someone as an anti-trans feminist (rather than a full reactionary). It is particularly ironic that TERFs — who dedicate their efforts to proving that trans women aren't women — react so harshly to being mis-labelled themselves. Moreover, some TERFs are seen labelling themselves as "AFAB transwomen", in an apparent attempt to create confusion.[citation needed]

TERF lingo and culture

TERFs have a number of...colorful...euphemisms for transgender people. For a while, they used "MTT" and "FTT" (Male/Female to Trans) as substitutes for "MTF" and "FTM" respectively. They have referred to trans women as "SCAMs" (surgically and chemically altered males) [35] and compared them to Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs. Nowadays, TERFs use "TIM" and "TIF" (Trans-identified male/female)[36]. They claim to prefer the terms because they emphasize that being trans isn't real; some also like them because they sound like nicknames for Timothy and Tiffany.

The bottom line

The fatal problem either lies in the method of propagation of the TERF message, or in the message itself. Given that TERFs often fall into very familiar scripts reminiscent of denialism and other dead-end positions,[note 13] and that people (especially academically oriented third-wavers) are very much familiar with the TERF argument cluster and reject it anyway, it's probably the message that is the problem here, not its method of propagation.

Tumblr user Crossedmouths neatly summed up the inherent ridiculousless of TERF arguments in a since-deleted post:[37]

TERF: we are here to abolish the genders

Feminist: oh, so we won't use gendered pronouns anymore?

TERF: no keep those

Feminist: gendered clothing?

TERF: no thats ok

Feminist: segregated bathrooms?

TERF: no those are important

Feminist: so we're going to do something about the gender binary, yeah?
We're going to attack the idea that gender is intrinsically linked to one's anatomy,
and we're going to boost the visibility of trans and intersex people,
who face the most violent consequences of the sex and gender binaries - yes?

TERF: no

Feminist: then what are you going to do, exactly? What is your plan? How are you going to accomplish this?

TERF: abolish gender

Feminist: How?

TERF: abolish it

In a nutshell

Video by Shoe0nHead, who is otherwise a vocal anti-feminist YouTuber:

See also

External links


  1. TERF has a more general anti-trans connotation, while TWEF implies a specific anti-MTF (male-to-female) connotation. In reality, the two are indistinguishable.
  2. TERFs specifically act against trans women, women assigned male at birth, by, e.g., targeting their employers and doctors. Check out: A Review of Transmisogyny Embodied: Cathy Brennan
  3. 3.0 3.1 They notably completely fail to acknowledge XY women with androgen insensitivity syndrome,Wikipedia's W.svg people who are born intersex, genderqueer people, or people with various non-XX, non-XY chromosomes (e.g., X0,Wikipedia's W.svg XYY,Wikipedia's W.svg XXY,Wikipedia's W.svg etc.). When pressed on the point, they will deny intersex is an issue, forcing them to choose a gender from the binary. Approximately 0% of chromosome obsessives have actually had their own karyotype tested.
  4. See graph here for an idea.
  5. See our article on antifeminism.
  6. You may call me a TERF but I am not transphobic... No, we will call you a TERF exactly because you are transphobic!
  7. This, of course, excludes people who identify as being outside the gender binary, e.g., genderqueer, but includes people who identify as being transsexual.
  8. Trans criticism is not transphobia... oh, wait, no! It bloody is!
  9. Examples: Memes that imply a trans woman is dangerous to cis women, that trans women are lying to the world or to themselves.
  10. "Despite being a Catholic, Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty of Ontario forced even Catholic schools to promote the homosexual agenda in the schools and have Gay-Straight Alliance Clubs, even though the practice of homosexuality violates Catholic teaching. (So much for religious freedom!)" - Paul Fromm
  11. "Unfortunately, the promotion of “sex change” operations has decreased investigation into prevention and therapy for those suffering from gender dysphoria. For example, in one case a Catholic, married man who had several children wanted to become female. In his therapeutic treatment, he came to understand the origins of his inability identify with his masculinity. In working with a spiritual director, he slowly came to experience God as loving father who could protect him, and to develop a relationship with St. Joseph as a role model of male love." - Richard P. Fitzgibbons, NARTH
  12. Warning: SWERF and TERF BS
  13. TERF debaters yield to no one, not even FEMA conspiracy fans, in coming up with creative ways to rephrase "You'll be sorry!"


  1. doing the patriarchy’s work and calling it feminism: the TERF
  4. TERF: Where the term comes from
  5. RadFem Speak Out Against TERFs!
  6. Unpacking Transphobia in Feminism
  7. TERFs & Trans Healthcare gives an account of the legal and medical barriers enacted to stop trans people receiving appropriate care in the USA.
  8. #GenderWeek: “TERF-war”, online bullying & the dark art of doxing
  9. TERF Battle: A New Book Reignites the War Between Radical Lesbian Feminists and Trans Women
  10. TERFs picketing and abusively calling Sarah Brown a "man".
  11. 11.0 11.1 SWerfs/Terfs, the Westboro Baptist Church of feminism.
  12. TERFs attempt to sabotage the long standing Glasgow Feminist Network
  13. The hate group masquerading as feminists
  14. Janice Raymond, The Transsexual Empire: the Making of the She-Male, 1979, ISBN 0807762725
  15. "Germaine Greer Paints a Portrait of Transphobic Feminism," Feministe, 2009 August 22, [1]
  16. Gender benders beware, Julie Bindel, The Guardian, 2004 January 30
  17. [2]
  18. Cathy Brennan defends herself as 7K call her out for hate speech
  19. Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey
  20. Reports from 1998 to the present on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and HIV-Affected Hate Violence, NCAVP
  21. TERF blog: Stop Taking Crazy Pills. They Only Have One Look.
  22. The TERFs
  26. Technology on the Social and Ethical Aspects of Transsexual Surgery, Janice G. Raymond, 1980
  29. Twitter [a w]