I learned a new word this week: TERF. It stands for trans exclusionary radical feminist or feminism. Those people who are called TERFs, I understand, in the main, see it as a slur rather than a legitimate term for a belief that they hold. It is not entirely clear what the belief is that makes someone a TERF but it seems to be applied to a particularly small and vocal group of feminists in the USA that assert that transwomen should never be included in any grouping that is women only. From what I can gather their contention is that transwomen will always be chromosomally male and, therefore, a) cannot possibly understand the hardships of a “real” woman’s journey and b) are prone to assumptions of male privilege including thoughts of sexual supremacy (leading to an urge to rape women), which puts the women in a women only group at risk when a transwoman attends their event. This is obviously highly insulting to transwomen and, not unsurprisingly, the trans community has tried to hit back. The TransAdvocate has been running pieces about TERF all this week.
The problem with hitting back against this sort of thing is that it is impossible to get a handle on. Fundamentalist beliefs, in all their forms, are by their very nature illogical. Nothing in life is as fundamental as a fundamentalist will have you believe and trying to squeeze humanity into a tightly defined box will always result in the fundamentalist having to ignore inconvenient truths that don’t quite fit their rigid view of the world. During the era of the black civil rights movement, the myth that the black man was intellectually inferior to the white man and therefore deserving of his subservient place had a lot of believers. The existence of black doctors, professors, academics and thinkers was conveniently ignored by those opposed to equality. This myth gained so much credence that, even with a black man in the White House, people still believe it today.
For the trans community, one of the myths that is likely to endure is that transwomen, in particular, are charlatans, not really suffering from gender dysphoria but actually men who dress up as women to prey on women. It is the paranoia that underpins the actions of those authorities who seek to restrict transwomen’s access to the ladies’ toilets or changing rooms and the women’s hospital ward or prison cell. This maybe a cross that the trans community has to bear for a long time.
The way to combat fundamentalism is through non-threatening education, avoiding the temptation to become fundamental yourself. Strident militantism will get you nowhere because the fundamentalists cannot hear over their own outraged voices and the moderate majority will be alienated by your approach. In this day and age when it is easy to fire off an opinion and reach thousands in seconds, the trans community needs to be careful that it does not destroy the fragile and burgeoning acceptance of the trans identity that is happening in society right now by responding in kind to those baiting us.
It seems to me that TERFs are a fringe minority. They aren’t worth a week’s reportage. In devoting time to them and their activities, you are a) giving them the oxygen of publicity and b) according them the honour of your attention. The trans community has many more important issues to be dealing with, in conjunction with government departments, and should not be distracted into wasting its time arguing with fundamentalists whose opinion of transwomen will never change.
TERF is not a phenomenon I have come across in the UK, although it may exist in a less well-organised and less aggressive form (see former UKIP candidate Julia Gasper’s comments in Pink News today if you really must). Maybe it lurks in the sleepy village halls of middle England WIs? I have no idea, but somehow I feel that an organisation now world famous for its nude calender antics would welcome transwomen to their ranks! However, even if it does exist in the UK, I shan’t be wasting my time getting exercised about a loony fringe. I would rather talk to the majority of moderate feminists who, having been through the fire of inequality themselves, have great sympathy with those who also struggle for the right to be equal.