It’s International Women’s Day, which seems like a great time to talk about an issue that seems to be looping back into the public consciousness for an aggressive return visit. That issue is trans-exclusionary radical feminism and its pernicious persistence in feminist spaces, as well as the larger framework of transmisogyny that surrounds and reinforces it. Given that trans women are women and International Women’s Day is an opportunity for a larger collective conversation about issues that matter to women, it’s time to call TERFs on the carpet — because if you’re a woman, regardless as to your background, history, or anything else, you should reject TERFs and all they stand for.
Some of you are familiar with the issues I’m talking about and I’m sorry to say that this post will probably be pretty boring for you. Some of you are not, though, and you’re the ones I’m writing for today, because if you’re not familiar with them, you’re going to keep running afoul of them over and over again — and in the process, you may inadvertently hurt some of the women fighting so hard for equal rights and recognition.
Let’s start with transmisogyny* — you’ll note that I’m not using transphobia, a hatred of trans people that often comes from a place of not knowing us and refusing to get to know us. The issues trans women face are often more accurately characterised as transmisogyny: A particular and very specific form of transphobia that targets trans women. It takes a lot of forms, but it can include things like refusing to acknowledge that trans women are women, targeting them for sexual assault and harassment, refusing services on the grounds that they aren’t performing femininity to your satisfaction, and more.
There is also trans misogynoir**: The very particular hatred reserved for Black trans women, who are at heightened risk of sexual assault, abuse, harassment, and hate crimes. If you look at lists of murdered trans women, you will note that many of them are Black. There’s a lot bound up in the hatred surrounding both Black trans women and trans women of colour in general and I encourage you to explore Black trans scholarly work on the subject.
Trans-exclusionary radical feminism roots its praxis in the notion that trans women are not women, but rather men. This approach to feminism leans heavily on gender essentialism and some troubling attitudes about what it means to be a woman (or a man) and how people interact with society on gendered terms. Some very high-profile feminists, especially in the second wave, were transmisogynistic and some of their work was used as the underpinnings for trans-exclusionary radical feminism.
The thing is, for a while there, I thought that TERFs were aging out of feminist discourse and practice, that the push to change the way we talk about gender and the belief that all people deserve to be treated with respect had finally put paid to their gross notions. While TERF discourse has always been present, I saw much more pushback to people like Germaine Greer and a growing sense that TERF praxis was invalid. Unfortunately, I’m seeing it surge back into being, and I see it tying in with larger social trends — TERF ideology plays directly into the rise of populism and authoritarianism in the US and elsewhere.
It may have started with the rise in profile for the trans community as several prominent celebrities came out or transitioned publicly and trans activists got louder and bolder. It certainly continued as trans people pushed for equal recognition and respect and became less secretive, insisting that they have a place in society as they are, and that no one should have to live in stealth. The rise of nonbinary activism and a growing number of public figures who aren’t men or women became another factor — we have been attacked both by the binary trans community and TERFs alike, and our destabilisation of what gender means is clearly as troubling to people now as emerging binary trans activism was 10 years ago. We owe a lot to even earlier trailblazers who openly transitioned in the 1960s and 1970s, to Sylvia Rivera and other trans women of colour at Stonewall, to many others.
The problem is that when something becomes visible and that thing is new and scary, people react by trying to reject it. In this case, they already had the tools: TERFs. The language, social attitudes, and beliefs of trans-exclusionary radical feminism are present in state houses all over the country as people pass transphobic and often specifically transmisogynistic legislation. Their words come out of the mouths of conservative politicians and can be seen on conservative websites. The violent, visceral attacks on trans women, whether figurative, legislative, physical, or otherwise are all rooted in the way that conservatives happily borrowed from TERFs and labeled it feminism and a way of protecting (cis) women.
So as you celebrate International Women’s Day, think about how TERFs wrote the playbook for the legislation and social attitudes sweeping the US, and how that endangers trans women. TERFs aren’t just despicable on their own as hateful people. They’re vile because they are enabling a widespread war on trans people, and lack of pushback is letting that happen.
*I did a bit of hunting for etymology and couldn’t find the origins of the term ‘transmisogyny.’ I’d love to know who coined it and where it first appeared, so if you know, please ping me!
**Misogynoir was coined by Moya Bailey, and you can learn more about it at Gradient Lair. I also wish to note for the record that the term ‘trans misogynoir’ is also rooted in the Black community, and that it applies specifically to Black women. Not women of colour, but Black women.
Image: Women, Ged Carroll, Flickr