‘What is a TERF?’
I am sitting with my friends in their lounge room, talking animatedly about societal issues, when we hit the topic of TERFs. ‘TERF stands for Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism, I explain. People who are TERFs tend to see the term as a slur, but it is definitely apt. Their intention is to exclude trans people, and particularly trans women.’
My friends—a heterosexual couple—are fascinated by the term. ‘Wouldn’t radical feminists be accepting of gender diversity?’
‘You’d think so,’ I say, ‘but no.’ When this topic emerges in conversation, I know to be patient. I have thought and read about gender for a long time. I didn’t come out as non-binary until recently, which means that I have heard unfiltered comments about trans and non-binary people for many years. I try to provide detailed explanations when I can, since the sentiments I hear tend to be fuelled by curiosity or ignorance rather than transphobia. But sometimes I end up debating, or having a fight, or leaving.
‘I don’t get it,’ my friend says, leaning forward. ‘Radical feminists would mostly be lesbians, right? They would know how it feels to be rejected by society over their sexual identity, as well as questioned about their gender identity.’
‘Yeah, they would know how that feels,’ I reply. ‘But this is different. These women believe they are protecting themselves by keeping “biological men” out of women’s spaces.’
My friend looks confused and disgusted. I remember the first time that I read about Sheila Jeffreys, an academic who taught at The University of Melbourne before retiring a few years ago, and her opinions about transgender people. She refuses to use transgender people’s preferred names and pronouns, believes that ‘male-bodied transgenders’ must be prevented from entering ‘women-only spaces’, and views gender-reassignment surgery as mutilation. Many of these views are consistent with those of the alt-right. I couldn’t get over the fact that someone with so much education in the area of gender and sexuality could have such discriminatory views about other humans.
‘I don’t understand it at all,’ she says.
‘I know. The most troubling thing is seeing radical feminists on the same side of a protest as conservative, fundamentalist Christian groups. Wouldn’t that be a huge wakeup call that you need to re-evaluate your life choices?’
Of course, it isn’t just radical feminists who are trans-exclusionary. There are garden-variety trans-exclusionary individuals and organisations. These people attribute their anti-trans stance to a whole host of ideologies, often religious but others due to ignorance and fear. Many use their own life experiences or beliefs as justification for rejecting trans people.
‘So the term TERFs doesn’t go far enough,’ her partner says.
‘Exactly! I’ve seen a lot of anti-trans sentiments in gay and lesbian groups, and obviously by right-wing Christians. Not all of them are radical feminists!’
He thinks about it for a second. ‘I think we should come up with a new title for them. Trans-Exclusionary Radical Demographics. It would cover anyone who is trans-exclusionary. And the acronym is TERDs.’
‘Um, that’s amazing,’ I say. ‘Society needs to stop everything and update the term TERFs to TERDs.’
Every time I thought about the TERDs, I laughed, but the conversation touched a nerve. It made me think about how many trans-exclusionary people are not radical feminists at all. I have encountered many gay men who are not feminists but seem to want the same things as TERFs. They want the queer movement to go back to being Gay and Lesbian alone. They want less talk about binaries and gender. They want the long alphabet to go back to GLBT; Gay first, Lesbian second, Bisexual and Transgender there because others insist they must include them, and Intersex and Queer removed.
I have heard cisgender people who are not radical feminists link trans or non-binary identities to mental illnesses. For these reasons, I believe we need to look at all trans-exclusionary groups and individuals and recognise their behaviours for what they really are—exclusion, microaggression, prejudice and violence. We cannot excuse it because it is ‘just another view’.
I interviewed writer and photographer Liz Duck-Chong who explained that ‘Trans-exclusionary thought is part of transphobic thought because it enacts violence. It enacts personal violence on a daily basis, forcing you to hear and engage with people who spend a great deal of their day to tell you that you’re fake, a fraud, mutilated, disgusting, etc. It enacts systemic violence by swaying policy and public opinion to harm transgender people in their access of housing, medicine, support, services and livelihoods.’
Duck-Chong outlined the two kinds of transphobia she has experienced. The first is not linked to any specific groups, and is based on general societal transphobia. The second kind is transphobia and transmisogyny, which Duck-Chong defined as ‘the double pairing of transphobic and misogynistic thought that is exclusively borne by trans women and trans feminine people.’ She described it as ‘insidious, researched, tactful. It comes from university professors and researchers, from salaried journalists, from politicians and from people with platforms and followings. It is based on myths, long disproven, about our genitals, our brains, our pasts, our likelihood of detransitioning, and our lives. This is the kind that is far more harmful because it comes from people purporting to be rationalists, real thinkers and professional bodies of knowledge, when they are always relying on speculation and research ten years out of date, at least. These people intend to sway the public perception of trans people so that the first group—the casual onlookers—are likely to be more harmful.’
Trans-exclusionary and transphobic thoughts and behaviours are prevalent in many spaces: online, in private settings and in institutions. Duck-Chong has encountered TERFs in several settings. She has left women’s spaces because of the ‘transphobia that TERFs would stir up, using arguments of “reasonableness” to explain why I and people like me shouldn’t really be able to be there.’ She left ‘not because I was forced out but because I had no interest in fighting for my right to stay in a space that is by design for me (I am a woman, I belong in women’s spaces).’
When I asked Duck-Chong about whether she has experienced trans-exclusionary behaviours or sentiments from people who are not ‘radical feminists’, her answer was ‘absolutely’. She explained, ‘TERF rhetoric has spilled out into public perception, in part because of the airtime it has been given by media (both deeply transphobic media and media that tries to strike a balance by explaining both sides, which in this case means the side where I am a valid human being and the side where I am not).’
I mentioned encountering trans-exclusionary mentalities and transphobia within the queer community, and Duck-Chong said that ‘there are queer TERFs—gay and lesbian people who are essentialist in their gender politics or exclusionary of trans people in their queerdom.’ Referring to queer people who are trans-exclusionary, she noted that ‘When you’ve based a way of fighting for your life and your right to love around gender, specifically the polarity of a binary (i.e. being a lesbian means you like women and not men), it stands to reason that when a population appears and messes with the absoluteness of those categories, or exists entirely outside of them, one might be confused. Where this confusion is aimed, however, becomes the problem—whether it’s turned inwards as self-reflection, or outwards as bigotry.’
In my case, I was confused, surprised and anxious when I realised that the term lesbian no longer fit me, and I came out (for a second time) as a bisexual woman. Later, I realised that the term woman was difficult for me since I don’t experience gender as a binary. Duck-Chong was flexible with her perception of her sexuality and gender identity and chose to ‘expand how I see my sexuality.’ She explained ‘I no longer identify with the term lesbian as I discover more and more that not only are the people I am attracted to not always women, but I don’t exclusively feel like a woman (and identify now as a non-binary woman, a series of loose terms that attempt to define more accurately how I feel day-to-day).’
I asked Duck-Chong whether she thinks that radical feminism can change and become trans-inclusive and trans-feminist, and support trans women. She said that Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism is a ‘class of radical feminism that is specifically trans exclusionary, not the whole of radical feminism.’ She emphasised that ‘There have been cases throughout the late 20th century of feminist and lesbian groups standing up for and supporting trans women, no matter their surgical status or history, but what was a very vocal minority against this has allowed its rhetoric to become more mainstream in a way that harms everyone.’
Finally, Duck-Chong mentioned that ‘The recent furore over the Safe Schools program and the marriage equality survey were both centred around trans kids, and around fears to do with trans kids, which have trickled down from TERFs in positions of authority being given voices because they once held relevance in feminist circles. This is especially difficult when TERFs who were once radical left-wing feminists are now teaming up with hard right conservative parties and groups to help them develop their transphobic policy, showing that they don’t actually care about women at all (often pairing with groups who are pro-life and anti-women).’
These trans-exclusionary voices in high places have been given significant airtime in recent issues in the media, including Safe Schools, young trans people’s access to hormone treatment, and throughout the postal survey on marriage equality. During the latter, I was deeply troubled by the way that trans and gender-diverse people were exploited by both the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns. After the ‘no’ campaign released an advertisement suggesting that boys would be forced to wear dresses to school if the marriage laws were changed, pro-marriage equality opinion pieces assured Australians that they did not need to worry; boys would not be wearing dresses to school. One writer used the moment to lecture readers about the problematic nature of dresses for any gender. This debate implied that there was something wrong with gender non-conforming behaviour, further alienating a marginalised and vulnerable community. The discourse rarely explored how marriage equality legislation would impact transgender and gender-diverse people.
Later, it was hard for me to ignore the language used as the Marriage Amendment Bill was debated in the Senate and the House of Representatives, and even in the celebratory statements once the legislation was passed. Many politicians used exclusionary terminology, referring to the ‘men and women’ in the gallery, or talking about ‘two men’ and ‘two women’ getting married. It is not difficult to learn how to use inclusive terminology. The continual perpetuation of gender binaries is indicative of the limitations of public progressiveness.
Many journalists and politicians are now using the recently amended Marriage Act to claim that Australia is fair, diverse and equal. But to be truly progressive we need to address trans-exclusionary thought and transphobia. Trans and gender-diverse people’s lives should not be treated as another ‘issue’ with two sides. There are no sides—we can either recognise people’s humanity, regardless of their physical and internal differences, or not. There is nothing radical about excluding trans people; TERDs are simply engaging in another form of prejudice and dehumanisation.
Roz Bellamy is a queer and non-binary Melbourne-based writer and workshop facilitator whose work has appeared in Archer Magazine, The Big Issue, Daily Life, Everyday Feminism, Going Down Swinging, Junkee, Kill Your Darlings, SBS and The Huffington Post. Roz’s work was shortlisted for the Scribe Nonfiction Prize in 2014 and won the Stonnington Prize for Poetry in 2016. www.rozbellamy.com