TERFs go home

Sophie Lewis has published an opinion piece in the NY Times that I thought was an interesting explanation of the trans-Atlantic divide, How British Feminism Became Anti-Trans. There is a surprising split between British and American feminism.

If the idea that transphobic harassment could be “feminist” bewilders you, you are not alone. In the United States, my adoptive home, the most visible contemporary opponents of transgender rights are right-wing evangelicals, who have little good to say about feminism. In Britain, where I used to live, the situation is different.

There, the most vocal trans-exclusionary voices are, ostensibly, “feminist” ones, and anti-trans lobbying is a mainstream activity. Case in point: Ms. Parker told the podcast “Feminist Current” that she’d changed her thinking on trans women after spending time on Mumsnet, a site where parents exchange tips on toilet training and how to get their children to eat vegetables. If such a place sounds benign, consider the words of British writer Edie Miller: “Mumsnet is to British transphobia,” she wrote “what 4Chan is to American fascism.”

Ouch. Mumsnet gets burned. But yes, I keep hearing about this “mumsnet” phenomenon, where Graham Linehan was holding court, although I’ve never even glanced at the forum myself. What I did learn about first-hand was the strange involvement of British skepticism in ant-trans activity.

Ms. Parker and Ms. Long may not know it, but they’re likely influenced by the legacy of the British “Skepticism” movement of the 1990s and early 2000s, which mobilized against the perceived spread of postmodernism in English universities as well as homeopathy and so-called “junk science.” Hence, the impulse among TERFs to proclaim their “no-nonsense” character; witness the billboard Ms. Parker paid to have put up last fall dryly defining a woman as an “adult human female.” Such a posture positions queer theory and activism as individualistic, narcissistic and thus somehow fundamentally un-British.
It’s also worth noting that the obsession with supposed “biological realities” of people like Ms. Parker is part of a long tradition of British feminism interacting with colonialism and empire. Imperial Britain imposed policies to enforce heterosexuality and the gender binary, while simultaneously constructing the racial “other” as not only fundamentally different, but freighted with sexual menace; from there, it’s not a big leap to see sexual menace in any sort of “other,” and “biological realities” as essential and immutable. (Significantly, many Irish feminists have rejected Britain’s TERFism, citing their experience of colonialism explicitly as part of the reason.)

Been there, done that. We had an ugly influx of British “skeptics” here, demonizing trans folk, who got banned hard. See Why I banned Andy Lewis, Maria Maclachlan, and Alan Henness — apparently those were well-known names in UK skepticism, and hoo boy, were some people on the other side of the pond shocked that I would ban such highly esteemed individuals. From my perspective, they were just total asshats, and slapping the self-proclaimed label of “skeptic” on them wasn’t enough to rescue them.


  1. Reginald Selkirk says

    So you want TERFs to return to their own turf?

    “biological realities”

    I have not run into this much, but I am guessing their ‘biological realities’ are just as impressive and real as those I hear from Creationists and anti-abortion folk.

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    many Irish feminists have rejected Britain’s TERFism

    That makes me wonder whether it’s a British phenomenon, or an English one. Is TERFism common among Scottish feminists?

  3. anxionnat says

    Back in the 80s, I think it was, there was a very obvious anti-trans strain in US feminism as well. I clearly recall that a number of the women’s music festivals of the day restricted attendance to what they called “women born women”. There was also controversy about whether women who had small male children would be allowed to bring their sons. As I recall, some of them allowed boys up to age 7, but segregated them to a section of the venue, and others had a blanket “no boys” policy. The one near where I live (in northern California) was able to get away with this for several years, but started losing money when festival-goers were not offered anything in the way of childcare for their sons. Getting picketed by trans activists didn’t help either. The rationale, as I recall, was that transwomen were “men invading women-only spaces.” I don’t know what ultimately happened, but I think they all went bust. Their anti-trans policies contributed to that. I won’t say that the rest of US feminism was trans-inclusive, because it wasn’t, but at least some US feminists were willing to listen, learn, and change harmful stereotypes. It doesn’t sound like that’s happening, at least among some British feminists.

  4. garnetstar says

    I knew that TERF-ism was quite a big thing in England, and I always wondered how they managed to surpass Americans in anti-trans bigotry (which is really quite a feat, in any area of bigotry. England should get a “You’re No. 1!” award, or something.)

    I’m reading about the particular intersection of skepticism, colonialism, and imperialism that English TERFs may be acting out of, but I’m not really wholly convinced yet. It’s just quite tangled in my mind that such concentrated bigotry could form against this one group, while not as many English people hold equally concentrated hateful views about the rest of the groups that are, in many Americans’ minds, all connected into one great mass of People We Hate and Suppress With Violence When We Feel LIke It.

  5. says

    A recent example of this “biological realities” nonsense, in a YouTube comment:

    Humble Guy
    20 hours ago
    PZ can you please explain how you teach evolutionary science when you blur such obvious subjects as male and female? Lol. I think you you should stop throwing rocks because you live in a pretty big glass house. To say something nice I really appreciate you going after creationist slime. In my eyes the far left and far right are both currently pretty anti science.

    I replied to tell him that biology pretty consistently rejects his claim of an “obvious” binary, therefore he’s the one being anti-science.

  6. birgerjohansson says

    Yeah, embryonic development is mess. I think Stephen Jay Gould (or was it Carl Sagan?) wrote about how nature does not make much difference between plural and singular, which is arguably even more basic than gender. If you look at stillborn fetuses they feature everything from ordinary conjoined twins to fetuses that even have mostly fused brains.

  7. says

    Humble Guy said:

    I think you you should stop throwing rocks because you live in a pretty big glass house.

    What drives me nuts as a writer is when people can’t even metaphor. Okay, you probably shouldn’t throw rocks (or stones, for those conversant with english idiom) if you live in ANY kind or size of glass house, but if we are going to throw some modifiers around, having a really big glass house is going to make it a lot safer to throw stones. Much more likely that the rock will never reach the walls and will instead end up on the considerably less fragile carpet or couch.

    If you want to heighten the sense of risk to communicate that a particular person should be even more careful than other glass-house residents, what you really should say is that they live in a particularly small and confining glass house.

    But of course knowing your way around your own metaphor requires the ability to think about not just what you want to say, but also how others will hear or understand your words. Since it is exactly this inability to understand others’ perspectives that is so uncommon among bigots, we shouldn’t expect the anti-trans brigade to do this well.

  8. microraptor says

    Rob Grigjanis @3: I’ve wondered about that too, given how much I’ve heard about how surprisingly trans-positive Ireland is supposed to be.

  9. James Fehlinger says

    There’s an American woman I came across on the Web, I
    think about seven ago, named Lierre Keith
    ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lierre_Keith ),
    whose main thing at the time I discovered her was
    her claim that, after 20 years of a vegan diet,
    she had thereby seriously damaged her health; and
    further that vegeterianism itself was more damaging
    to the environment than commonly supposed (an argument
    she made in a book The Vegetarian Myth
    https://www.amazon.com/Vegetarian-Myth-Food-Justice-Sustainability/dp/1604860804 ).

    I thought she was intelligent and articulate, and I found
    her argument plausible enough (on YouTube anyway; I never
    read the book), though her erstwhile vegan comrades were
    none too happy with her (I gather the hostility escalated to
    some physical confrontations in public).

    So it occurred to me recently to see what she was up
    to lately, and I discovered a YouTube video of a talk:

    Lierre Keith hosted by WNTT – Washington DC
    Jan 30, 2019

    . . .in which she claims (7:59) that “women are losing
    the ability to talk about sex-based oppression, since
    ‘sex doesn’t exist’. The women on the front lines are,
    as ever, the least of us. Women in homeless shelters,
    women in prisons, women in battered-women’s shelters, as
    well as schoolgirls, are being forced to share intimate
    spaces with men who claim to be women. The statistics
    show that such men have the same rate of criminality as
    other men. So they have the same rate of violent crime
    and the same rate of sexual crime. Across the English-speaking
    world, the dignity and safety of the most vulnerable women
    have been weighed against the feelings of sexual predators.
    And the feelings of these men have been declared more
    important. Feminists warned where this would end, and
    now here we are. . .”

    So much for male-to-female transgendered folks. She
    goes on to say about female-to-male transgendered

    (9:00) “I have spent much time reading the words of
    teenage girls who think they are transgender. It has
    broken my heart in ways that will never heal. . .
    They want physical freedom, a life of intellectual
    pursuits, and bodily integrity. They want to be human
    , not objects. . . In my teen years, we hated
    our bodies, and we punished them with eating disorders
    and self-harm. . . Those practices have now been
    institutionalized and medicalized. . . And most of the
    girls who are shunted down that path would grow up
    to be lesbians. It’s the gay and lesbian kids who are
    being transed. . . They should be our next generation
    of warriors, and the battlefield is instead their female
    flesh. The loss is not just personal — lesbians are
    always the beating heart of women’s liberation, and every
    so often lesbianism and feminism come together for a brief
    moment and there’s an explosion across the culture. . .”

    (11:54) “There is nothing wrong with the animals we are.
    Especially, there is nothing wrong with anyone’s genitals.
    Not ever. And from this I will not budge. I’m also not
    budging from this: no one is born in the wrong body. . .
    It’s patriarchy that hates you, not me. The right-wing
    brand says ‘If your personality doesn’t match your body,
    change your personality.’ The left-wing brand offers
    to change your body to match your personality. And
    by change they mean chemicals and surgeries that will
    destroy your fertility, your sex organs, your bones, your
    liver, your heart, and your lifespan. I have no
    word for this except sadism. . .”

    (13:26) “I can’t speak in public without a phalanx of armed
    professionals to protect me [one of whom is standing
    conspicuously behind her], and we’re being told this isn’t
    happening. . .”

    Oy! If nothing else, she certainly seems to thrive on controversy.

  10. sarah00 says

    The Sociological Review has a recent issue titled The Terf Wars. The papers are behind a paywall but I’m sure there’s ways to access them without institutional log-ins and the paperback is available. I’ve been slowly making my way through it and it’s been absolutely fascinating reading that has taught me a lot about feminism of all types. For example, I didn’t realise that 60s feminism often excluded lesbians as ‘not real women’ or that radical feminism was originally (and may still be, I’m not sure) about defining women in a way that wasn’t about their biology. As Simone de Beauvoir put it, “one is not born, but rather becomes, woman” – biology is often much messier than our ideal conceptions of ‘man’ and ‘woman’, and not just in things like genitalia and chromosomes but also phenotypically.

    Most cisgender people within US and European culture will, at some point in their life, undertake body modifications to better embody their sexed persona and emulate what is, we are told, a natural sexed body binary. Billions are spent each year on hair care, removal, and maintenance; cosmetic surgeries; workouts; exogenous chemicals; and ‘health’ and ‘lifestyle’ products. Many of these are targeted to cisgender population’s need to embody ‘the True Male and the True Female, the average, the typical, and to judge by a look around us, [the] possibly extinct’ (Herschberger, 1948, p. 3). [Williams 2020, p720]

    I highly recommend the issue. It’s been written in response to the rise in prominence of UK TERFs, which seems to have itself been a response to the proposed reforms of the Gender Recognition Act. It’s really interesting and informative, and as it’s an academic work it’s fully referenced so provides a great jumping off point to get to know the literature better.

  11. says

    main thing at the time I discovered her was
    her claim that, after 20 years of a vegan diet,
    she had thereby seriously damaged her health; and
    further that vegeterianism itself was more damaging
    to the environment than commonly supposed

    The first claim is reasonable: a failure to eat a balanced diet can harm your health, and if you cut out one source of nutrients (meats, poultry, fish, eggs) without making sure you are getting those nutrients elsewhere, malnutrition can certainly result.

    It’s one of the reasons I don’t advocate veganism. Cutting down on animal protein in one’s diet is, compared to the average US diet, a good thing. But very few people are taught exactly how to make sure they get from plants all the iron & b-vitamins & other nutrients that are more common in animal flesh or eggs. So as a policy for an entire society, knowing that a lot of society isn’t trained to do this right and isn’t curious enough to learn, is risky to individuals and is demographically guaranteed to cause some harm across a population.

    This doesn’t mean veganism is bad. It just means our nutritional needs are complex and some people who are not malnourished when eating animals will be when eating no animal products.

    The 2nd claim is a relative one. In an debate over the environmental impacts of animal farming for food there will be different estimates of those impacts and thus different estimates of the benefits of reducing or eliminating the farming of one or more animals.

    Inevitably this means that some vegans will present an estimate that deviates from the median, and given their interest in veganism, we would expect that they will more often trend toward greater benefits from veganism rather than lesser.

    This seems so anodyne I can’t imagine it being worthy of comment outside of professional academic literature trying to narrow in on the best possible estimates.

    Therefore, in short, Keith’s general positions as described here seem overreactions, and this makes an overreaction in other areas more likely, not less. This makes less-than-fully-rational thinking on other topics more likely, not less.

    So… to me the railing against trans folks is only to be expected.

  12. chris says

    #2 Reginald Selkirk:

    I have not run into this much, but I am guessing their ‘biological realities’ are just as impressive and real as those I hear from Creationists and anti-abortion folk.

    That sounds about right. I was just a stupid engineer, but I had a kid with multiple medical issues so I actually took a biology class at the local community college, and read some very interesting books. I knew I was ignorant, but I had no idea my depths of ignorance. I am still learning.

    One of the more interesting books I read was Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body by Armand Marie Leroi. It turns out creating a baby is very difficult, which is probably why my kid has what is thought to be a de novo mutation resulting in abnormal muscle growth in his heart (yay surgery). Things just happen, and gender/sex is not binary and is quite varied. From delayed formation of sex organs in puberty to possessing both an ovary and a testicle. That is just the physical traits, not what happens in the brain.

    I would never try to tell a transwoman about her experience. Nor a transman. Nor someone who is nonbinary, like my youngest kid. (See how Danae is referred to on Non Sequitur)

    Perhaps because I was already primed with an open mind. First by reading The Left Hand of Darkness forty years ago, and then remembering the hullabaloo when an engineer in my company transitioned over thirty years ago. They guy engineers seemed to freak out about the woman’s restroom. I had to tell these guys that the toilets in the “Ladies’ Room” were enclosed in a stall, so it is no big deal. Sometimes I wonder if those poor guys were afraid of having to work with even more women engineers. Le sigh.

  13. ORigel says

    I think the problem is that amateurish skepticism is useful for dismissing “low-lying fruits” like Flat Earth, QAnon, God-belief, homeopathy, and the like. But apply it to social issues and the proud “Skeptic’s” own biases will win the day.

    The likes of Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit, even when used properly and not half-ass like it is for many Capital-S Skeptics, is no substitute for having detailed knowledge/experience of the field you’re investigating, or the rigorous scientific method actual scientists use.

  14. Silentbob says

    Ms. Parker and Ms. Long may not know it, but they’re likely influenced by the legacy of the British “Skepticism” movement of the 1990s and early 2000s, which mobilized against the perceived spread of postmodernism in English universities as well as homeopathy and so-called “junk science.”

    See, this I just don’t get. I’ve read many commentators say the same thing, TERFs come from skepticism, but how in the fuck does that even work?! It’s like saying the anti-vax movement came from skepticism. Any skeptic who looked into the “trans issue” would quickly find science and evidence is entirely on the “pro-trans” side, and the anti-trans side is entirely urban myth.

    Every major relevant scientific and medical body recognizes the reality that trans people exist, and should have societal support. American Medical Association, American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association, Endocrine Society, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, American Academy of Pediatrics, and of course World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH), and local branches USPATH, EPATH and AUSPATH. Like everyone. It’s not even controversial.

    On the anti-trans side, there’s nothing but ludicrous urban myths.
    – Gay people are being transed
    – Men will pretend to be women to prey on women
    – Children are being told they’re in the wrong body because they played with the wrong toys
    – It’s the death of women’s sports
    – blah blah blahdeblah

    … all of them complete scaremongering nonsense backed by no evidence whatsoever and belonging in the same basket as “the moon landing was faked”, bigfoot, or crystal healing.

    Srsly, how the fuck does even an amateur skeptic come down on the side of obvious (as Carl Sagan would say) baloney, in the face of the evidence-based consensus of the entire scientific/medical community?

  15. Silentbob says

    @11 James Fehlinger

    That’s nothing but standard anti-trans nonsense: invented explanations for trans people that bear no relation to any actual trans experience, implausible hypotheticals, outright lies (“The statistics show that such [trans women] have the same rate of criminality as [cis] men”), and blatant calls for conversion therapy. Note how it’s exactly the same as historical homophobia: “they’re brainwashed by the homosexual agenda, they’ll destroy family values, they’re sick perverts, they need therapy to make them normal”. Same shit, different bucket, as we used to say in school.

  16. mvdwege says

    @16 Silentbob

    I can see how TERFism came out of the Skepticism movement. Skepticism as an organised movement has always attracted a fair share of people who revelled in knowing better than the people they considered benighted idiots. When confronted with what they see as common sense ‘there are 2 sexes and you are what the doctor put on your birth certificate’, of course they are going to see anyone denying that in the same light as they’d see someone professing belief in homeopathy.

    In fact, that very bigotry based on incomplete knowledge and Dunning-Kruger like belief in their own rightness is what you see in the American Atheist community as well, when it comes to things like racism and misogyny.

  17. lotharloo says

    Oh wow, after reading the comparison between mumsnet and 4chan, I had to take a look myself. But after having had a quick look, I have to disagree, at least for now. People seem to forget how horrible 4chan is. It is almost the bottom of the internet. It is very difficult to find worse websites: on 4chan, you have pedophilia, you have mobs, you have mobs encouraging others to assault, rape, and commit terrorism, you have fascism, you have explicit and nazi-style racism. You have rampant sexism. Maybe you can argue that Jihadi websites with their terrorism training manuals are worse, but 4chan is actually pretty close once you add all the other vile shit that exists there.

  18. Dunc says

    Laurie Penny also did a good (long!) piece on the phenomenon at Medium: TERF Wars: Why Transphobia Has no Place in Feminism:

    Whenever I’m sharing war stories with American progressives, one of the first things they tend to ask is why there are so many prominent British transphobes, and why respectable left-wing publications like the Guardian publish their writing on the subject so often. They ask me why the only Western leaders speaking the same language on trans rights as these British liberals are right-wing despots.

    Well, buckle up, because this is why.

    Britain is the epicenter of a strange, savage, and specific cultural backlash against trans rights. That backlash is doing real harm to people whose lives should not be up for debate. Its proponents have recruited a great many decent, well-intentioned people to their cause through subterfuge and scaremongering — including mainstream media figures and celebrities like Rowling.

  19. MadHatter says

    I’m an American now living in Britain, I hadn’t quite realized how many British feminists were anti-trans. Probably in part because I’m still more aware of the US writers. However, I know mumsnet, and if that’s where British feminism is centered then it’s a total disaster.

  20. mcfrank0 says

    I went to college and spent most of my adult life in the Chicago area and I was familiar with a couple of woman only spaces. My take at the time was that it started as a need for a safe space, particularly for women who had suffered severe abuse by men. Like so many other things, scope creep set in and radical feminism (the RF in TERF) banned all males from women spaces including from the word woman and “womyn” was coined. The Michigan Womyn’s Festival restrictions on males included not only, as mentioned by other commenters, male children over a relatively young age, but male pets. I would like to think that the policies moderated over time not just because of the inconvenience of such restrictions, but that the worst man on woman abuse became less severe and less common. However, I imagine that the need to place boundaries on male actions at feminist events is still ongoing to minimize any attempts at mansplaining and white knighting,

    Regarding the question of whether TERFism is prevalent in Scotland, I have no knowledge myself. But is is worth pointing out that J K Rowling is Scottish.

  21. blf says

    Just a comment on terms: Two names are being used in the comments without adequate definition — and it’s unclear the different writers have the same meanings in mind — potentially causing some confusion.

    Ireland: Is that the island or the Republic in the South and West of that island? The Northeastern part of the island is N.Ireland (sometimes called “Ulster” (but that opens another can’o’worms, so don’t!)), which is part of the UK (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland). The UK-as-a-whole is commonly called Britain; the name Great Britain is politically for England, Scotland, and Wales; and geographically for the island containing those three political entities. (I’m ignoring here the numerous small islands related to either to those two larger islands.)

    Hence, using “England” interchangeably with any one of UK, Britain, or Great Britain is confusing (actually, simply wrong). It’s also sensible to be clear what is meant by “Ireland”.

    On TERFism / feminism, my belief (without much in the way of evidence!) is the modern Irish Republic is very friendly to both feminism and LBTQ+, current-day English feminism has a nasty strain / stain of TERFism, and I’ve no idea at all about Wales, Scotland, or N.Ireland. (I’m also using “feminism” very loosely here, without definition — just many others…)

    mvdwege@19, “Skepticism as an organised movement has always attracted a fair share of people who revelled in knowing better than the people they considered benighted idiots.” I have no idea about the “has always” part, but otherwise, YES, that matches my own experiences of so-called “skeptics” in current-day England. I learned quickly to largely avoid them (both organisations and some individuals).

  22. KG says

    Rob Grigjanis@3

    I can’t answer for Scottish feminists in general, but the Scottish Green Party, of which I’m a member, is both strongly feminist and strongly pro-trans (at least one of our candidates at the Holyrood elections next year is trans). A few Terfs left the party when the pro-trans policy was overwhelmingly passed at conference.

  23. lumipuna says

    Regarding the question of whether TERFism is prevalent in Scotland, I have no knowledge myself. But is is worth pointing out that J K Rowling is Scottish.

    BTW she’s actually a Trainscot, or a Scot born English. That might explain something. /s

    Joanne Rowling was born on 31 July 1965[23][24] in Yate, Gloucestershire,[25][26]

  24. says

    I am now seeing strange claims that “TERF” is a term of misogynistic abuse.

    It’s used exclusively about women. It’s often used by men. Its always used pejoratively. It’s not a term they use about themselves. In the U.K. it sounds very like the word ‘turd’, ie shit. See the problem?

    But…TERF is not a gendered term at all, so there are plenty of male TERFs. Women and men use it. It’s not my fault a term used to describe nasty people is seen as a pejorative. I know they don’t use it themselves — they have this weird aversion to a term that is accurately descriptive and contains no slurs.

    When I pointed out these distortions of reality, the guy accused me of being dogmatic.

    Saying it sounds like “turd” is a real reach.

  25. kingoftown says

    Feminist (and most left wing) organisations in Northern Ireland tend to be opposed to partition and work on an al island basis so “Northern Irish” feminism is pretty much the same as Irish feminism.

  26. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    I fully understand the need many women feel to have safe, male-free spaces to which they can retreat from a domineering patriarchy. As a male, I respect such spaces and I understand why I as a cis-male can be a source of fear just because I am a cis-male.
    Still, I think that when you reject the experience and even the humanity of another minority also marginalized by the patriarchy that maybe you should try to look at your motives. And if you start arguing that cis-males will pretend to be trans-females (which is very likely to get them beaten up by cis-males) so they can prey on women, then you are making the same arguments as Louie Gohmert. And THAT should REALLY give you pause.

  27. lotharloo says

    I snooped around in the mumsnet’s “feminism” forums and someone there was very pissed off at the term ‘cis’ and she claimed it’s an offensive word, one that she thinks of it as the equivalent of the N-word (insert eye roll emote).

  28. Allison says

    TERF means “Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminist,” no more and no less. It is negative only to the extent that you believe being trans-exclusive is something bad. (Same as SJW)

    It was invented by Radical Feminists, in particular, by “Tigtog”, who is the owner of the feminist blog “Hoydenabouttown.com.” As she described it, she was finding discussions among her fellow radical femnists being derailed by a few people who were obsessed with a belief that trans women were a threat to womankind, and wanted a term to refer to them.

    More recently, it has been getting applied to pretty much anyone who is transphobic and (maybe) isn’t an obvious right-wing bigot, but strictly speaking, it really only applies to people who label themselves “radical feminist.”

    As PZ points out, it is not inherently a slur; if the person being so described considers themselves feminist (esp. radical feminist) and believes in excluding trans women, then it is simply descriptive. If someone is insisting on treating trans women as a threat to women and still calls TERF a “slur,” aren’t they actually admitting that being trans-exclusive is a bad thing?

    I mean, is referring to someone as a “bitch” a slur if they are literally a female dog?

  29. Silentbob says

    A bit of old-timer trivia for those who don’t know (or may have forgotten): The term TERF was coined by a feminist who was a semi-regular commenter on Pharyngula waaaaaaaaaaaay back in the day. Seen here for example responding to the astonishing news that PZ was inducting a co-blogger. :-)

    The term is not, of course, in any way offensive – that’s utter bullshit invented by transphobes.

  30. Samuel Vimes says

    Hi, PZ! Sans a big ol’ upvote button, I’ll just have to express my delighted approval of your ripping into those TERF asshats by writing a post saying so. Keep fighting the good fight!

  31. Gregory Greenwood says

    As a Brit, I can confirm that we have our very own home grown crop of bigots, extremists and assorted other arsehats who in their way are just as obnoxious as their equivalents across the pond, though usually less explicitly motivated by religion. I have had the misfortune to encounter the exact kind of transphobic feminists (should that be pseudo-feminists?) who trot out these sorts of claims of ‘biological reality’ and the ludicrous notion that transwomen are somehow the equivalent of cis-men in some sort of disguise conspiring to infiltrate women’s spaces. It is a toxic and paranoid worldview that unfortunately often goes unchallenged, since it demonises transpeople, and any cis-woman who opposes the idea is accused of ‘betraying her sisters’ while cis-men who do so are called misogynists. Worryingly, this mindset has partially co-opted the UK feminist narrative in some quarters.

  32. Rob Grigjanis says

    KG @26: The SNP seems to be pro-trans rights, but with some TERFish members;

    Ms [Gillian] Martin was named as a junior education minister by Ms Sturgeon last year – before being dropped after it emerged she had referred to “hairy knuckled, lipstick-wearing transgender laydees” in a blog post written in 2007.

  33. Allison says

    I fully understand the need many women feel to have safe, male-free spaces to which they can retreat from a domineering patriarchy.

    If that were really what it was all about, there wouldn’t be much of a controversy. There are private groups (e.g., support groups) whose participants decide to exclude people for any number of reasons, and they don’t make the news. They don’t prevent us from getting on with our lives, especially as there are plenty of woman-centered groups that welcome us.

    The issue, at least as far as most of us trans women are concerned, is that these people are doing their best to make our lives unlivable, through things like bathroom laws, campaigns to have us fired from our jobs, and threats of violence if we enter places they have decided are “women-only” spaces. Plus of course, constantly spreading deliberate lies intended to support their claim that we represent a threat (see comments #11 and #16.) In many cases, they have explicitly stated that they want us dead.

    As such, they make common cause with misogynistic and male supremacist right-wing groups, such as the so-called Evangelical Christian groups. (In some cases, it has reached the point of death threats.)

  34. says

    In the U.K. it sounds very like the word ‘turd’, ie shit. See the problem?

    Um, it actually sounds a lot more like “turf”, which is usually taken to mean green and pleasant land. So it’s actually highly complimentary to all but the most hardcore poetry haters in Britain, right?

    Humor targeting bad arguments aside, my biggest problem with uses of TERF is that the so-called TERFs are rarely established to be radical feminists and I, frankly, don’t think they deserve that honor without some significant evidence.

  35. Rob Grigjanis says

    CD @38:

    it actually sounds a lot more like “turf”, which is usually taken to mean green and pleasant land

    ‘turf’ also means ‘sod’, which is a pejorative in the UK. A much kinder term would be Perhaps Rather Anti-Trans, abbreviated as PRAT.

  36. blf says

    Crip Dyke@38, “the so-called TERFs are rarely established to be radical feminists”.

    Good point. In the article linked-to by Silentbob@32, I’m credited with having coined the word ‘Terf’. Here’s how it happened (Nov 2018), the author, Viv Smythe, points out they also suggested “Tes” for basically that reason:

    After a bit more reading, I think the trans-exclusionary set should better be described as TES, with the S standing for separatists. A lot of the positions that are presented seem far too essentialist to be adequately described as feminist, let alone radical feminist.

    Unfortunately, despite being more descriptive and less ambiguous, Tes is also the abbreviation for the Times Educational Supplement (among other things), which is well-known, and hence perhaps too confusing?

  37. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    excuse me for sharing my simplistic view of TERF’s here, despite all the well reasoned arguments presented above.
    I see TERF’s as being very exclusive, arguing that being a woman is harder than living as a woman.
    That feminism is working to get women accepted as equal to men, and accepting trans into feminism dilutes their message. The irony, of course, is being exclusive while arguing for inclusiveness.
    See how simplistic I am.

  38. mcfrank0 says

    To me the core of the issue is that to the folks we know as TERF’s (whether they accept the label or not -OR-, pace CripDyke, whether they deserve to be called Radical Feminists) is that they refuse to accept trans women as women under ANY circumstance.

    And egregious example: Nina Paley insists on drawing trans women as penises with wigs and make-up.

  39. aspleen says

    It’s a bit difficult to buy your claim about sex not being binary when you’ve made statements like this Professor Myers:

    “There’s an interesting argument that’s been raging for decades about women’s orgasms: are they useful or not? Normal people, especially women, are probably wondering how that can even be a question — you probably find them very nice — but that’s missing a deeper point, which is, do women’s orgasms increase their fertility? Which I would argue masks an even deeper question, which is about women’s Ultimate Purpose. And apparently, the ultimate purpose of having a woman orgasm is that it makes her cervix more likely to slurp up the manly ejaculate, a phenomenon called upsuck or insuck.”

    That seems pretty binary to me with respect to women’s orgasms, as opposed to men’s.

  40. says

    Humor targeting bad arguments aside, my biggest problem with uses of TERF is that the so-called TERFs are rarely established to be radical feminists and I, frankly, don’t think they deserve that honor without some significant evidence.

    This. Posie Parker is a racist anti-feminist whose profil pic is a nazi uniform barbie. A lot of transphobes aren’t even bog standard feminists. Though most of British feminism is racist and classist as fuck and the epitome of White Feminism if there ever was one. It’s no surprise that the only British feminists that are not complete dumpster fires that I can remember are women of colour.
    In Germany that brand seems to be dying out with the older generation, thankfully.

  41. Rob Grigjanis says

    aspleen @45: Funny old English: words can have slightly different meanings in different contexts. The worst one might conclude about that passage is a lapse on Myers’ part. Humans sometimes have those. I’ve sometimes used the word ‘lepton’ when I meant ‘charged lepton’. To a selective literalist like you, that must mean I don’t believe in neutrinos!

  42. Silentbob says

    @ 43 slithey tove

    I see TERF’s as being very exclusive, arguing that being a woman is harder than living as a woman. That feminism is working to get women accepted as equal to men, and accepting trans into feminism dilutes their message.

    Judith Butler, a feminist theorist who TERFs (TESs whatever) hate with a passion, for reasons which will become obvious, said gender is performative. Performative in this context meaning a thing that only comes into being by doing it. Which sounds very esoteric but the classic example is a jogger, right. What is a jogger? It’s a person who jogs. You jog, you’re a jogger. You don’t jog, you’re not a jogger. Butler said gender is like that. Being a man has no meaning except to live in society as a man. I agree with this.

    I’m a man, but I have no conception of what it would mean to be a man who does not live as a man. What is that? You spend your entire life in drag like Mrs Doubtfire or some shit? Even then I would consider that someone who lives as a woman to the outside world, but internally lives as a man pretending to be a woman.

    Sorry if I’m being confusing, my gist is I don’t understand the distinction between “being a woman (or a man)” and “living as a woman (or a man)”. Seems to me the former only has meaning in the context of the latter. (But then I think biological essentialism totally sucks.)

  43. Silentbob says

    @ 44 mcfrank0

    Yeah, maybe don’t link to that. Like, there are several trans bloggers on this network, several trans commenters on this blog, and PZ goes out of his way to create a safe environment. So I would ask myself, “If I were posting on a blog frequented my Jewish people, would I post links to anti-Semitic Nazi cartoons?”. And the answer is nah, not so much.

    Trust me, we know that hateful shit is out there, don’t really need links.

  44. Silentbob says

    @ 45 aspleen

    What nonsense is this? C’mon that’s the lamest gotcha ever. I put it to you there is no contradiction between these two statements:

    A. Sexual differentiation is humans results in vastly more than only two possible final states.

    B. Most people have either a penis or a clitoris, the latter are typically women, and we can meaningfully generalize about the response of each.

    What is the supposed contradiction you imagine to be present?

  45. says

    @aspleen, #45:

    It’s a bit difficult to buy your claim about sex not being binary

    That statement is presenting the ludicrous case of sex essentialists up for mockery, not presenting PZ’s own view. Here’s his own conclusion, from the same blog post you quoted, and which I note that you refused to link:

    But that is the biggest problem of them all. If you’re trying to determine whether there is a selective advantage to a woman having an orgasm, why focus exclusively on the mechanical effectiveness of getting her pregnant? Humans are psychologically and sociologically complex, responsive to all kinds of subtle and not-so-subtle cues, and with a huge amount of individual variation. Looking at what is essentially the very last step in an elaborate courtship dance and declaring that that is the critical thing that evolution is looking at tends to kind of minimize an intricate behavioral complex that is also subject to evolutionary forces.

    This reductive, narrow approach to a tiny aspect of a question is a common approach in some disciplines. Another subset tends to view programmed female responsiveness to male signals as the mechanistic goal of evolution. Evolutionary psychology, I’m looking at you.

    So here’s PZ criticizing the study for being exclusive, essentialist, and overly reductive, and you’re only willing to quote the part of his post where he’s summarizing the exclusive, essentialist & overly reductive perspectives of the study’s authors. Worse, you’re then acting as if you didn’t read the conclusion and that we should all treat those perspectives as actually originating with PZ.

    Perhaps if you’re going to be so blatantly dishonest you should do it off the internet, where your dishonestly isn’t so easily and thoroughly debunked.

  46. Owlmirror says

    The last time someone came complaining about “TERF” and “cis”, I asked if they would be happier if we just used the word “transphobe” (perhaps “transmisogynist” would be better), without regard to whether the person so called was (or claimed to be) a feminist or not. I also wondered if they would be happier if we used “non-trans” instead of “cis” (it occurs to me now that that might not be inclusive of nonbinary persons who aren’t trans).

    I didn’t get a response, but I suppose I shouldn’t have expected one.

  47. KG says


    It’s an exact parallel to all the objections to the term “Islamophobia”. The real objection is not to the term, it’s to the bigotry the term refers to being pointed out.