My responses to TERF concerns

Recently, ContraPoints released a video responding to Gender Critical Feminists (i.e. TERFs).

I’d like to offer my own responses to the same TERF concerns, not really because I think TERF concerns deserve to be addressed at length, but because I believe in participatory learning.  I also like to think that I’m adding a few useful points.

1. Gender metaphysics

Asking trans people “What even is gender?” is kind of like asking theft victims, “What even is property?” That is to say, it’s a really tough question that deserves a serious answer, and therefore should be asked in a different context where it’s not a transparent troll. Otherwise, don’t be surprised when you get reductive slogans like “man trapped in a woman’s body”.

IMHO, a lot of gender, as it is commonly understood, seems to come down to snap judgments that we make about other people. Those snap judgments are based on appearance and voice, cross-referenced to the gendered customs of your culture. But snap judgments can also be “wrong”, suggesting that gender does not refer to appearance itself, but refers to an essence indicated by appearance. But the nature of the essence itself is unclear.

I have a very Wittgensteinian perspective. Ultimately, gender is defined by pointing. Throughout our lives, we can point to examples of (cis) men and (cis) women, and we each make our own inferences about the underlying essence.  And when we apply our various theories to trans and intersex people, we disagree on the conclusions. I would say that there is no essence, language is just inherently ambiguous, and the choice of how to resolve those ambiguities is our own.

As it happens, a lot of people (both cis and trans) have strong feelings about what gendered judgments should or shouldn’t be made about them, and I don’t know why that is but maybe it’s a human psychology thing? I believe in resolving the language ambiguity in a way that reduces harm. That means not second-guessing people’s expressed genders, and reconsidering my snap judgments when they mismatch a person’s expressed gender. Under this model, I suppose you could say that the “essence” of gender is whatever that human psychology thing is, but there are exceptions to that rule, and really it’s just better to understand that there isn’t any essence at all.

2. Gender stereotypes

TERFs contend that trans women are reinforcing oppressive gender stereotypes by using symbols of femininity like makeup or dresses. I think trans women adopt feminine expressions because society is enforcing gender stereotypes upon them, and society refuses to treat them like women until they adopt sufficiently feminine expressions. And beyond that, some trans people may gravitate towards feminine gender expressions for the same reason cis women do.

Anyway, it’s literally impossible to not reinforce stereotypes at least some of the time. There are just too many stereotypes. For example, trans women who are too masculine are a stereotype. Trans women who are too feminine are a stereotype. According to TERFs, trans women often confirm both stereotypes simultaneously, providing literally no space where trans women aren’t confirming stereotypes. TERFs are particularly concerned with a certain set of stereotypes of women, that’s fair. But actively stereotyping trans women, while insisting they live their lives specifically to avoid the stereotypes you care about, is bullshit.

3. Abolish gender

My understanding is that many TERF gender abolitionists prefer to describe themselves as “female” instead of “woman”, under the theory that “female” refers to sex and “woman” refers to gender. And under the same theory, many or all trans women are “male”. But as a matter of descriptive language, “male” and “female” are gendered terms. So, this seems like a rather self-serving choice of language, that doesn’t actually abolish gender at all, and just affirms their own gender identity while denying the same affirmation to trans women.

My theory is that if you actually abolished gender (instead of half-assing it like TERFs), it would not be much of a utopia.  I suspect that whatever the human psychology thing is that makes people want to be seen as a man or a woman, would likely persist into a genderless future.

There is surely room for disagreement on this matter, and I’ve certainly seen trans people take both sides of the issue. I give credit to trans people on either side, since it would seem they have a lot of personal experience relevant to the question. I will give less credit to TERFs until such a time that they acknowledge the full range of human experience, instead of just the cis parts.

4. & 5. Male privilege and male socialization

Trans women were seen as boys/men earlier in their lives, and were thus conferred some of the privileges associated with that. (From what I’ve heard, male socialization can sometimes feel quite different for people destined to be trans, but I would still agree that they have at least some privileges from male socialization.) Later, when they socially transition, they lose most of that privilege, and then a lot more. And while trans women may not have been socialized as women earlier in their lives, many of them are being socialized as women in the present.

Why do TERFs care so much about the male socialization of trans women? They seem to believe womanhood must be defined by oppression, and then they try to find all the ways that trans women aren’t oppressed in exactly the same way, and therefore can’t be women. They’re right that trans women aren’t oppressed in exactly the same ways. But neither are all cis women oppressed in exactly the same ways. The advantages and disadvantages we have in life are related to many other factors, such as race, class, occupation, sexual orientation, and just plain random chance. Why do TERFs draw the line at trans women?

More broadly, I’m just opposed to the idea of defining womanhood by oppression. I don’t know about womanhood, but I have a lot of experience with queer rhetoric, and there are certainly people who try to define queerness by oppression. The problem with that is, queer oppression varies greatly over time and geographic location, and also depends a great deal on the particular variety of queerness. As a matter of practicality, policing queer spaces according to how much oppression people experience is just bad for everyone. People with experiences of oppression don’t particularly want to reopen all those wounds in front of self-appointed gatekeepers just to be accepted. It also results in people endlessly comparing oppressions, and pointlessly drawing hard lines between some varieties of oppression and other varieties.

And the funny thing is, even though the outlines of “queer” as a category don’t exactly match up to the outlines of oppression, we’re still able to talk about queer oppression?  Same with categories of race, class, nationality, and ability.  It’s plain weird to think that womanhood of all categories needs to be defined by oppression, and I don’t see the slightest bit of benefit to offset the harm that TERFs cause to trans people.

6. Reproductive oppression

This is just another example of oppression commonly experienced by cis women, and not by trans women. My response is the same as above.

7. Erasing female vocabulary

The issue at hand is trans-inclusive language, like “chestfeeding” in place of “breastfeeding”, or “front hole” in place of “vagina”. There was recently an article in Aeon on this very subject.

From what I’ve seen, this issue looms much larger in the minds of TERFs than among trans activists. TERFs endlessly circulate examples like “front hole” even though there was just one example of that, and I’m not convinced that any notable trans activists were actually enthusiastic about it. This long response to Natalie’s video describes “one notorious case that has been circulating on Twitter and Facebook”, which just screams “TERF meme based on something that was never actually important, and was taken out of context.”

Although I’m not enthusiastic about many of the individual attempts to make trans-inclusive language, I am on board with the general project. I don’t think gendered language needs to be replaced in every context, but surely there are some contexts where the precision is important. It’s especially important when it comes to laws and medical guidelines.

8. TERF is a slur

I’d like to introduce the concept of the “activist language merry-go-round”. Basically, if a group is stigmatized, then that stigma tends to rub off on the group’s label. Eventually the label becomes too problematic, and activists invent a new term to avoid the stigma. But eventually the new term becomes stigmatized too, and the cycle repeats itself until the underlying source of stigma is removed. One example is Black people in the US, who have cycled through many labels in US history (e.g. colored, negro). But the idea originally came from Julia Serano, who was describing trends in trans language.

I understand TERFs consider “TERF” to be derogatory, and their preferred label is “gender critical feminists”. But I think the underlying problem is that TERFs, as a group, are stigmatized (for good reasons I would say). So if TERFs got what they wished for, and critics switched to calling them GCFs, then I think “GCF” would quickly become derogatory too. Then TERFs would need to come up with yet another term for themselves. Lots of anti-TERFs refuse to use “GCF” because they feel that’s just capitulating to TERF interests. But in the long run, I don’t think it even serves TERF interests.  It serves the interest of wasting everybody’s time.

Some people have adopted an unambiguously derogatory term: FART, for feminism-appropriating reactionary transphobe. I don’t care for it, but mostly I just don’t think it matters.

Final comments

So, I’d like to say something about the ContraPoints video.  Natalie Wynn is an entertainer.  Natalie frames it like she’s giving more nuanced answers than usual, but IMHO she is not saying anything new, and in fact she has to rush through a lot of points to fit it all in, along with a bunch of jokes.  The reason I am able to give my own detailed responses, without merely echoing Natalie, is that I’ve listened to trans activists for a long time, and thought about it myself for a long time.

If the arguments made by ContraPoints are new to you, dear reader, then you likely have nothing to be ashamed about.  But to the extent that TERFs find these arguments to be new, I’d say they’re not paying enough attention to the opposition.  The thing is, TERF arguments often seem disingenuous, and trans people are understandably disinclined to give thoughtful responses to them.  TERFs also have a habit of circulating the least effectual pieces of trans rhetoric within their own communities, and pretending they are representative.  They demand more nuance from trans activists, but actively engage in practices that prevent themselves from finding it.


  1. says

    TERFs contend that trans women are reinforcing oppressive gender stereotypes by using symbols of femininity like makeup or dresses. I think trans women adopt feminine expressions because society is enforcing gender stereotypes upon them, and society refuses to treat them like women until they adopt sufficiently feminine expressions. And beyond that, some trans people may gravitate towards feminine gender expressions for the same reason cis women do.

    I don’t have anything to speak against what you said here, although I do have something to add to it. I think you’ll also find that in the manner reminiscent of the expression “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”, in our society where enforcing gender is given priority, the largest discrepancies between expected gender expression and actual gender expression will definitely attract the most attention.

    Combine this with,
    1. We expect men to adopt feminine expression less often than we expect women to adopt masculine expression for a number of reasons.
    2. A man dressing more femininely attracts more attention than a woman dressing masculinely.
    3. Either a woman or a man dressing androgynously attracts less attention than a man dressing femininely.
    4. Either a woman or a man dressing androgynously attracts less attention than a man dressing femininely.

    So if there are trans women dressing androgynously and/or masculinely, they are far less likely to be noticed, whether they are perceived to be men or perceived to be women, than those trans women dressing femininely that are perceived to be men. On top of this, if they are perceived to be women, their femininity is unexceptional (though things such as ostentatious decoration might be noticed for its ostentatiousness, even if not for its femininity).

    Given all this, we notice hyper feminine trans women more than other trans folks, including other trans women.

    Given that, the “trend” toward trans femininity is to be distrusted until there is good empirical evidence backing it. Further, until there is good empirical evidence of the level of femininity in trans women’s presentation on a day to day basis, we should strongly suspect that trans femininity is overestimated, not underestimated and not simply too imprecisely estimated to suspect one type of error over the other.

    Given that, when anyone suggests that trans* women are particularly feminine, the best-case response is probably not “I’m not sure that means what you think it means” (although even if there is a strong trend towards more feminine expression among trans women than among cis women that trend may indeed not mean what someone believes it to mean). The best-case response is probably CITATION FUCKING NEEDED.

  2. says

    @Crip Dyke, #1
    My instinct–based on dealing with the analogous issue of femininity among gay men–is to stand with feminine trans women, however dubious it is to claim that hyperfemininity is particularly prevalent among trans women. But I agree with you and thank you for highlighting the questionable nature of the claim. TERF arguments are wrong in more ways than one.

  3. anat says

    Regarding your 1: When you grow up speaking a language that is more gendered than English (Hebrew in my case, with gendered verb conjugations, gendered adjectives, and gendered numbers) and you pay attention to how young children perceive gender you see the following: A toddler, or even a pre-schooler, who knows how to apply grammatical gender consistently to the ‘correct’ people – ie uses masculine grammatical gender to the same people others would use it for and feminine gender for those others would – suddenly making the dramatic discovery that an individual has different anatomy from their own. IOW the child knew how to categorize people into genders without knowing about anatomical differences associated with sex. Well, obviously the child was relying on known examples, following the example of others, and making inferences based on cultural gender norms. And if we think about it, we keep doing it the same way the rest of our lives – we don’t often get anatomical/karyotype/hormonal information about people, we either guess their gender or receive the gender information from them. (Despite being cisgender I was often asked about my gender as a child. And my brother was often misgendered in his early years.)

    Re: 7: The word ‘vagina’ literally means ‘scabbard’ in Latin – ie the thing in which one puts a sword – the word is so male-centric and heteronormative, and I’m guessing only the fact that this meaning is in a different language allows it to be a word that is preferred by people identifying as feminists of any brand.

    Re: 8: Pinker called it ‘the euphemism treadmill’. I like your better.

  4. says

    @anat #3,
    You should check out my link to Julia Serano! She directly compares the “euphemism treadmill” to the “activist language merry-go-round”.

  5. siggysrobothusband says

    I think #5 is off. Objections to trans women’s “male socialization” aren’t about whether or not trans women had some experience of oppression, they’re about trans women being in a category of people who are presumptively dangerous and potentially predatory. The language about a shared experience of oppression is a thin veneer on fear and disgust.

  6. brucegee1962 says

    The problem I have with “gender critical feminist” — isn’t it possible to believe that gender is 100% a social construct, and yet still be supportive of trans people?

  7. says


    Why yes. In fact, all feminists are critical of gender to one degree or another. I find “gender critical feminist” to be true, but misleading.

    In fact, those who name themselves gender critical feminists generally deny that gender exists at all. Rather, what we call gender is appropriately another name for biological sex. When we speak of other things as “gender” such as gender expression, they come up with yet more ways of naming the phenomenon without using the word gender. “Stereotypes” is one, yet curiously they don’t include any qualifiers that would exclude racial stereotypes. While “Gender Roles” covers stereotypes and a few related phenomenon quite well, and “Gender Stereotypes” covers the phenomenon with perfect, isomorphic simplicity, you will find that self-named gender critical feminists avoid use of both of these, preferring the far less helpful and far less specific “stereotypes”.

    It’s almost like they’re doing the entire project of feminism really, really badly.

  8. snuffcurry says

    My “gut” reaction to criticism of trans women as reliable “over performers” of femininity has always been that femininity is marked, masculinity the default, so the problem lies with a biased observer unable to tease out individual expression and wanting to view a monolith, but I think Crip Dyke at #1 has the correct and more elegant answer. And I agree, the anti-trans interlocutor, TERF or no, needs to define their terms. When I’ve interrogated such complaints on the ground, “femininity” always seems to be limited to clothing, coiffure, and cosmetics. Heaven forfend women sometimes buy and then use, according to their own personal style, mass-produced goods marketed to women. Such camp and trans-specific ~femininity~!

  9. says

    My theory is that if you actually abolished gender (instead of half-assing it like TERFs), it would not be much of a utopia. I suspect that whatever the human psychology thing is that makes people want to be seen as a man or a woman, would likely persist into a genderless future.

    Abolishing gender sounds like something I’d be OK with. But that’s only because I’m agender. My lifestyle choices and fashion preferences strongly lean towards masculine and I dislike being treated as a woman, but I don’t exactly have a male gender identity either. I perceive myself as a human rather than as a trans guy.

    That being said, I strongly suspect that majority of other people (both cis and trans) do have gender identities. This would make the idea of abolishing gender along with all the related social expectations impossible.

    Hmm, maybe my aversion to being treated as a woman or being forced to behave in a feminine manner could indicate that I do have something similar to a gender identity. It could be that my gender identity is “definitely not a woman” rather than “a guy.”

    anat @#3

    IOW the child knew how to categorize people into genders without knowing about anatomical differences associated with sex.

    Here’s a conversation I had with a friend back when we were five years old.

    Me: “My mum told me that when a stork brings a baby, it is naked at first. How can parents tell whether their new child is a boy or a girl?”
    Her: “Boys and girls scream differently.”
    Me: “I don’t believe you. Maybe girls appear in the world with long hair, while boys have short hair.”

    Back when I was a child, I had no clue that there’s an anatomical difference between boys and girls. The way I saw it, girls had long hair and they wore pink dresses, boys had short hair and they wore blue pants. That’s how I told whether some kid was a boy or a girl.

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