TERFs Are Not Feminists.
No, you will not change my mind.
Written by: Kristina Markulin
March is Women’s History Month, a time to celebrate women’s accomplishments and advocate for women all around the globe. Women’s rights have historically been contested in society, mostly by men. However, there is a movement growing in popularity that claims to be for women’s rights, but in actuality, actively harms women of all walks of life.
Both online circles and real-life spaces reflect a growing obsession with gender amongst some women. This idea that what makes a woman boils down to manner of dress, or socialization, or phenotypical features. That “woman” is a concrete, predetermined set of roles that one must meet in order to be considered as such.
To the untrained or unsuspecting eye, this rhetoric might pass by unnoticed or with little scrutiny. However, these are dog whistles, a mere taste test of TERF ideology that, although it may seem innocuous at first, is anything but.
TERF stands for “trans-exclusionary radical feminist.” It refers to a gender-essentialist movement of cis women whose feminism does not consider — and actively antagonizes — trans women. A lot of TERF rhetoric is predicated on the idea that “we” need to protect “real women” from “men invading women’s spaces.” It’s a movement that cloaks transphobia and transmisogyny with a veneer of progressivism in an attempt to legitimize bigotry. It’s a movement that boils down gender to genitalia and chromosomes, painting those who move within or break the gender binary as dangerous predators or “lost lesbian sisters,” with the goal of invalidating and demonizing trans people (especially trans women). It simultaneously claims to break the societal confines put on women while actively harming a whole community of women and strengthening the restrictions on another.
In short, it’s not feminism.
Before I continue, let me be clear: I am a cis woman. My discussion on these issues is informed by the tireless and dedicated work trans and nonbinary activists have done to deconstruct the harmful rhetoric levied against them not only by TERFs, but by an ever-increasingly harmful and bigoted society that TERF ideology only strengthens. The Human Rights Campaign tracked at least 54 fatal attacks on trans and non-binary people in 2021, the deadliest year since 2013. It is not hyperbolic to say that this rhetoric kills.
With that out of the way, let’s continue.
Anyone not born into this exclusive club is an interloper, deliberately misidentified with some appropriated language of abuse to obfuscate their point.
As stated above, TERF ideology relies on gender essentialism, the oft-debunked idea that biologically, men and women have different intrinsic traits that are unique and shared amongst all those of the same gender. It’s the same line of thinking that locks women to housework while men are the sole breadwinners, that says women are pure beings more interested in romance than sex while men are sex-obsessed to the point of not desiring anything else. It’s using biology to create a manufactured psychological dichotomy within the gender binary.
This, of course, has no concrete backing and actively ignores the nuances of identity. While there are two main types of genitalia (more when considering intersex people), the human mind is not locked to a binary. Feminism began as a way to combat this forced dichotomy, to demand that women be treated as men’s equals, not as inferior or complimentary.
And I’ll admit, feminism has had a very rocky history, and hasn’t always had intersectionality in mind. A long and arduous history shows feminist movements being actively bigoted toward other minorities. However, feminism needs intersectionality now more than ever. Famously, early feminism was constructed to benefit only white woman, and the anti-porn/anti-sex work stances of the second wave have done little to remedy the issues facing sex workers. But as time went on, feminism became more intersectional, and now in 2022, it’s important that feminism becomes staunchly intersectional.
The TERF obsession with “real women” is in itself a fallacy. Many of the ways TERFs try to define women can’t even be applied to all cis people. How do you even define a woman? Hormone levels? People with PCOS — many of them cis women — have elevated androgens. Menstruation? Older women and younger girls don’t menstruate, not to mention the transmasculine people and trans men who may still get periods. Manner of dress? There are entire subcultures of cis women dressing masculinely, but that doesn’t make them men. TERFs’ definitions of “woman” are completely arbitrary; they don’t account for the wide array of diversity humans naturally embody. There is no one set way to be a woman, even if you’re cis.
When you peek behind the rhetoric curtain, you see something ugly. TERFs’ demonization of men (and those whom they perceive to be men), their anti-sex work/anti-porn beliefs, their demand for the protection of the meek, delicate woman — it all feeds into the same patriarchal system they claim to be against. It’s no wonder they share so many views with conservatives and neo-Nazis. Whether they realize it or not, the “radical” in their name has more in common with the right than the left.
There is no women’s liberation if trans women are not liberated too.
TERFs advocate for freedom from the patriarchy, but demand that freedom be gatekept to only the “pure” or “authentic.” To them, transness is not a reflection of the complexities of humanity, but a perversion of humanity’s greater design. They don’t bat an eye at bathroom bills or athlete hormone checks because, fundamentally, they agree with the conservatives writing and advocating for them. To them, femininity is almost sacred; a more delicate, more fragile sex that needs to be protected from those who dare cross into its boarders. Anyone not born into this exclusive club is an interloper, deliberately misidentified with some appropriated language of abuse to obfuscate their point. They fight tooth and nail to hold onto an antiquated notion of what a woman is or can be — that in the end, their advocacy isn’t advocating for women. It’s advocating for the ultrafeminine, child-rearing, breeding broads that neo-Nazis think women are.
A lot of TERF anger is misplaced. Trans women are not a threat to cis women. There has been no widespread phenomenon of trans women harming cis women in places like bathrooms or locker rooms. But TERFs refuse to accept that trans women aren’t men, that they face their own unique struggles that no cis person can truly understand. And this hormonal phrenology they keep trying to push is not going to change that trans women’s struggles don’t deserve to be minimized by bigots who refuse to learn anything about psychology and social constructs.
TERFs pretend to care about women's rights and liberation, but the rights of an entire group of people cannot be ignored or denied. There is no women’s liberation if trans women are not liberated too.
And I’m sorry, but if your advocacy does not include trans women, you’re not a feminist.