TERFs Harm Women

I hate loose threads. There was something I had to brush past in my last post, because I didn’t know much about it and I was already over the 2,000 word mark. It kept bugging me, though, enough to prompt me to do my homework. Now I realize why this was the first bullet point in that TERF apologetics post:

Associating our intellectual position with a far right-wing one, because some far right-wing thinkers would agree with us in some of our conclusions, and insinuating that our position is all the worse because of it, is an ad hominem. Ad hominems are widely recognised as inappropriate in philosophy. […]

Equally: the fact that person shares a conclusion with a far right-wing person could never show, on its own, that the conclusion was false. It is likely that every single person on the planet shares several hundred (true) beliefs with any given far right-wing person. In brief: this strategy, and any which are structurally like it, is rhetorical guilt-by-association. It has no place in responsible argument.

If we’re playing fallacy cards, then I pull out the Fallacy Fallacy. If it’s a coincidence that TERFs and the religious far-Right agree on several positions, that is indeed an ad hominem. If instead they agree on the same positions because they’ve directly convinced one another of the truthhood of those positions, then it is fair to link the two. This wouldn’t be a bad thing if their positions were true, but if they’re instead an incoherent mess used to harm others then we have an entirely different story. If I can establish such a link then I can lay the harm caused by one group at the feet of the other.

It turns out that link is a lot easier to find than I thought. Take this example:

The National Center for Healthcare Technology was a government funded body that reviewed metadata so that Health & Human Services (HHS) would be able to make evidence-based ​judgements about the efficacy of medical technologies. In short, they informed the US government on what was and what was not medically efficacious. The NCHCT had Janice Raymond, author of The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male issue their position on the efficacy of trans medical care in a paper titled, “Technology on the Social and Ethical Aspects of Transsexual Surgery.” This position paper makes practically all the same assertions about trans people commonly found in far right-wing anti-trans propaganda; however, unlike other extremist group propaganda, this misleading report informed HHS’ position on trans medical care. The report was available through the Office of the Associate Director for Medical and Scientific Evaluation, Public Health Service. […]

It was only after the NCHCT pushed Raymond’s bigotry in 1980 that the US government reversed course in 1981 and took up Raymond’s views and rhetoric. Raymond’s hate became the government’s stance. Raymond – a seminary-trained ethicist, not a clinician – was the architect of the anti-trans stance the US government adopted in the 1980s. This official anti-trans stance soon spread to private insurers and the American trans population soon found itself without access to medically necessary health care.

Janice Raymond denies she played a significant role in the policy change, but Christian Williams can bring receipts. Raymond’s book was also foundational for TERFs; Sandy Stone received a minimal amount of transphobia from the radical feminists and lesbian separatists she hung out with in the 1970’s, but after Raymond’s book was released the hate began pouring in. Janice Raymond’s text was still inspiring both TERFs and the religious far-Right as late as 2015, nor was she the only TERF helping craft the far-Right’s talking points.

Another example of right-wing players building off of TERF scholarship features Dr. Paul McHugh, professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University. As a member of the American College of Pediatricians, a right-wing breakaway group that split from the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2002, McHugh co-authored a new position statement this past March that claims that respecting transgender children’s identities causes them harm and is akin to “child abuse.”

Among McHugh’s primary sources? Sheila Jeffreys, another lesbian scholar and anti-trans activist who, like Janice Raymond, is deemed a TERF by advocates for trans justice. Jeffreys recently retired after 24 years of teaching at the University of Melbourne but remains highly influential. She refers to gender-affirmation surgery (also known as gender-reassignment surgery) as a form of mutilation and describes the “practice of transgenderism” as harmful and a “human rights violation.”

Nor is he alone. Jennifer Roback Morse, who founded the Christian far-Right Ruth Institute, has also drawn inspiration from Shelia Jeffreys. This makes quite a bit of sense. The Southern Strategy relied heavily on dog whistles; don’t state you’re engaging in bigotry, but instead change the language so that the bigotry is indirect. Talk about “states rights” instead of “segregation,” that sort of thing. By the 1990’s rolled around, this had been refined into astroturf campaigns, “think tanks,” and faux secularism. If you’re trying to oppose women’s rights, call yourself the Independent Women’s Forum and reward people who spout some of your talking points. Don’t thump your bible, instead look for vaguely scientific or legal excuses that justify your bible-thumping.

But this creates a need for such excuses among the religious far-Right, and TERF literature is the perfect place to mine for them. The primary goal of TERFs is to exclude transgender people from LGBT spaces and activism, and that’s been in place from the very beginning. “Drop the T” transitioned from unofficial to official slogan in 2015, thanks to a petition. Guess who picked up that torch in 2017?

In her presentation, [Meg] Kilgannon mapped out three non-negotiables in the fight against the so-called gender identity agenda, a conspiracy theory touted by anti-LGBT groups that disavows sexual orientation and gender identity. The first is to “divide and conquer. For all its recent success, the LGBT alliance is actually fragile and the trans activists need the gay rights movement to help legitimize them.” In other words, separate trans activists from the gay rights movement, and their agenda becomes much easier to oppose. As Kilgannon explained, “Trans and gender identity are a tough sell, so focus on gender identity to divide and conquer.” For many, “gender identity on its own is just a bridge too far. If we separate the T from the alphabet soup we’ll have more success.”

TERFs inspiring the religious far-Right would be bad enough. For some TERFs, however, the opposite is true. Janice Raymond is a former Catholic nun with a Masters of theology degree. The Transsexual Empire was based on her dissertation, and her supervisor was the theologian Mary Daly. Both would wind up souring on religion due to its patriarchal nature, but when you’ve gotten that wrapped up in religion you can’t quit cold-turkey. Religion’s influence usually sticks with you for a long time after, and conservative views of sexuality can persist long after you’ve stopped believing in a god. A third example is Germaine Greer, a TERF who calls herself a “Catholic atheist.” While I can’t track down a primary source, from staring at secondary sources it looks like she doesn’t believe in a god but is still a fan of the ethics and culture she picked up from the Catholic nuns who educated her. No wonder she still sounds a lot like them, even as she rails against the patriarchy.

Those influences run deeper than upbringing. Remember this puzzling bit from that TERF apologetics post?

We agree that human rights are not like a pie: that one group has some rights doesn’t mean some other group has fewer rights. All humans have the same basic rights. However, the more relevant point is that, when it comes to discussions about how to materially realise a particular group’s human rights, the means proposed may be exactly like a pie: giving some social or legal benefit to one group, as a putative means of realising their rights, may precisely result in some serious disadvantage to another affected group, undermining the realisation of their rights.

That’s not how rights work! Every human right applies to every person, equally. When rights conflict, one is temporarily granted precedent. It’s why the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is ordered the way it is; rights listed earlier in the document are more important than those listed after, greatly simplifying the analysis of any rights conflict. [HJH 2019-06-27: Got this one wrong! Details here.] Both Roe v. Wade and R. v. Morgentaler weighed a person’s right to personal autonomy against the state’s right to promote the health and welfare of all its citizens, and found that the right to autonomy should be granted preference in this case. In general, we consider the right to personal autonomy more important than the right to life, hence why a doctor cannot harvest your blood or body parts to save anyone’s life, why the state cannot force-feed you if you’re on a hunger strike, why the state cannot torture you even if it would save lives, and why (in the US, anyway) you’re allowed to “stand your ground” and harm someone else without facing criminal charges. If TERFs were feminists, they’d have the Violinist Argument tattooed to their eyelids and recognize this conflict-of-rights framework. So where on Earth did these TERFs pick up this bizarre interpretation of human rights?

Kilgannon identified a wide coalition of potential allies outside the Christian Right who could confront trans friendly measures. Here’s her advice on how to draw them in:

“Explain that gender identity rights only come at the expense of others: women, sexual assault survivors, female athletes forced to compete against men and boys, ethnic minorities who culturally value modesty, economically challenged children who face many barriers to educational success and don’t need another level of chaos in their lives, children with anxiety disorders and the list goes on and on and on.”

The religious far-Right has been using this argument for years, to argue against granting rights to LGBT people.

“They are capitalizing on a scarcity mindset rhetoric … saying there aren’t enough rights to go around, and therefore we must prioritize cis women over everyone else,” [Heron] Greenesmith said, referring to nontransgender women. “That’s right out of the right’s playbook, when they say, ‘Let’s prioritize citizens over noncitizens, let’s prioritize white people over people of color.’”

TERFs are also inspired by the religious far-Right. They absorb their talking points, and in the process obfuscate their religious and anti-feminist origins, artificially boosting their credibility. But the connections run even deeper and even more recent than that.

The Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF) is a supposedly radical feminist activist group which, as noted by Pink News, shows “little evidence of campaigning on any women’s issues unrelated to transgender people”. They claim to “lobby for pro-choice legislation” and for “women’s autonomy”, but somehow evidence of (or calls to) action for such purposes are completely absent from their website (…) outside that vague mission statement blurb. […]

Let’s get back specifically to WoLF, however, who received a $15,000 grant from Religious Right group Alliance Defending Freedom and collaborated in a joint countersuit with Family Policy Alliance in opposition to Gavin Grimm’s now delayed Title IX suit. […]

Alliance Defending Freedom is a huge Religious Right evangelical Christian non-profit law firm which, quote, “seeks to recover the robust Christendomic theology of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries.” Nervous yet? Because that is completely bonkers. The firm has become a massive force for years now in helping develop and hammer out “religious freedom” legislation, seeking to bypass any LGBT employment, housing, medical or public accommodation protections through a “religious belief” exception clause. They literally consider the act of refusing service to LGBT folks as a form of civil rights activism not unlike that of Rosa Parks. This firm, which Women’s Liberation Front received funding from, literally advocates the return of sodomy laws, which we should remind you were only struck down federally in 2003. […]

The board voted unanimously to engage Imperial Independent Media to fundraise for WoLF on a 20% commission basis, and to authorize Natasha to enter into a contract for these services on behalf of WoLF.”

Imperial Independent Media is run (according to related LinkedIn profiles) by a man named Zachary Freeman, a Focus On The Family-related activist who was most recently in the news over a lawsuit to gather and distribute names of employees at abortion clinics by having them turned over to the Religious Right anti-abortion activist group Center For Medical Progress.

The ADF isn’t merely huge, though, it’s the largest legal outfit fighting for the religious far-Right. In addition, members of WoLF have collaborated with Focus on the Family, and appeared on two Heritage Foundation panels. Focus on the Family has been fighting against gay rights since 1977, while the Heritage Foundation is a key ally of the Republican Party and has been engaged in climate denialism and anti-feminism for decades. WoLF’s name even seems to be a riff on the Gay Liberation Front, which if true means they’re exploiting LGBT history to boost their legitimacy.

By now, you shouldn’t be surprised to hear that TERFs are flocking to WoLF.

Included on the Judiciary Committee’s speakers list was Julia Beck, a 26-year-old lesbian, self-described radical feminist, and a member of the group Women’s Liberation Front, or WoLF. But Beck was not there to testify in support of the Equality Act. Invited by Republican members of the committee, she was there to decry the protections that it would provide trans women. “If the act passes in its current form as HR5, then every right that women have fought for will cease to exist,” Beck asserted.

Beck is the latest trans-exclusionary radical feminist, or TERF, to become the darling of right-wing media and conservative politicians who, in recent years, have cloaked their transphobia by embracing the talking points of radical feminists like Beck. […]

Recently, Beck has become one of the most prominent and recognizable figures in the movement. At the end of 2018, she was kicked off of the Baltimore mayor’s LGBTQ Commission over her belief that trans women are not women, making her, in her words, the “most hated lesbian in Baltimore.” Shortly after, she appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show to discuss her ouster from the commission and to reiterate her claim that trans women threaten the safety of what she terms “biological females.”

This too makes a lot of sense. TERFs know enough about feminism to know it’s heavily engaged in activism. If they look at transgender rights through an activist lens, the steady increase in tolerance is a major problem. Whatever they’re doing to raise public consciousness isn’t working, and redoubling their efforts isn’t going to be an effective use of time and money. Instead, the smarter choice is to concentrate on swaying the people who hold the levers of power. Canada’s sexual assault laws weren’t changed via a mass movement, for instance, but by coalition building and targeted activism by feminists. In the United States, conservative far-Right groups hold tremendous sway over how the government is run. They’ve been trying to control who lands in the Federal courts for decades, because by controlling what is constitutional they can nullify any laws they disagree with a stroke of a pen. The effects will reverberate for a generation. And, as luck would have it, these groups are already transphobic and eager to collaborate.

But coalition building with them comes at a very heavy cost. As I pointed out earlier, the religious far-Right are deliberately trying to break up LGBT groups by pitting them against each other; since TERFs are disproportionately lesbian, this collaboration harms them worse than most groups. Ryan T. Anderson, who hosted both of those Heritage Foundation panels, is more famous for opposing gay marriage. These groups are also trying to make abortion illegal and take contraception off the shelves. While it’s off-topic, I must also mention that the religious far-Right are also trying to bring back racial segregation in schools. A coalition with the religious far-Right is a coalition with groups that actively harm all women, not just transgender ones, an appalling choice for a group of so-called feminists. It would also establish the thesis of this post by cementing a link between TERFs and a group that is actively harming women.

Here, I have to confess something. The citations alone make it obvious I’m not the first to connect the dots here. In my case, one person in particular opened my eyes to the ties between the religious far-Right and TERFs.

What I want is for lesbians & especially butches to not feel like they have to change who they are for others. To self-affirm and be strong. But what shook me is that, more and more, the people sharing my critical spaces were the same people also denigrating lesbians & feminists. Male doctors & psychiatrists, antifeminists, others who hate lesbians and women. I would let them tag along for just one issue I believe in. I want to hold onto my principles, but all of them. I want women to be strong, but joining with other groups that hate women won’t work. My critique of transgenderism for being antifeminist and antiwoman led to a coalition with groups who are antifeminist and antiwoman. This doesn’t mean I should abandon what I believe in, which is supporting women & difference. But I’ve had to reevaluate action & coalition.

I’ve started to become very uncomfortable with people who want to participate in my gender critical project but who I otherwise detest. I continue to be suspicious of transwomen, but does that mean I should align with others who are explicitly antifeminist and antiwoman? I kept up this project because I believe in radical feminism, but I often made concessions out of feeling attacked and backed into a corner. Why have I mistrusted transwomen so much but then accepted the comradery of antifeminist and antiwoman men? It makes no sense in retrospect. … But now? I’m having second thoughts, even regrets. I don’t know where I’ll end up, but I want to refocus. I want to value my time too.

Remember Cathy Brennan? For a while she was the sharp end of the TERF spear, doing everything from petitioning the UN to remove gender identity as a human right to harassing journalists and outing transgender women to getting people banned from Facebook for mocking her. That “Drop the T” petition may have been her handiwork. Yet sometime after 2015, she went silent. In two Twitter threads dating from two years ago, she describes why she’s pulled back from public activism. While she lists multiple reasons (“I think a lot of it was feeling like I had no allies. If I searched my name on twitter all I saw was people angry with me and mocking me.“), the majority of those threads is devoted to her increasing discomfort with building coalitions with the religious far-Right. I forget how I stumbled on those threads, let alone who might have pointed me there, but either way that confessional was my first introduction to those ties.

How do I know that’s Cathy Brennan? Because earlier this year she posted a video where she not only repeated those basic points, she added new details.

[1:21] I’d say a few years ago, when WoLF formed – WoLF is a good idea. I donated initially to support WoLF. I was asked to be on the board. I declined.

This semi-principled stance has made relations between her and other TERFs quite awkward. She doesn’t consider herself “gender critical,” and other TERFs seem to have “cancelled” her. Again, the situation isn’t clear-cut (Brennan’s video also talks about a lack of empathy within gender critical communities, likely in relation to transgender men, and the “cancelled” thing is based on a one-line summary of a podcast that engages in hipster bigotry), but the basic outline is clear. Even as she tries to take the high road, Brennan still believes that a religious far-Right astroturf group is “a good idea.”

Increasingly, TERFs are perfectly fine with joining forces with the religious far-Right. Not only are their talking points co-opted to legitimize these group’s views, they also take inspiration from and repeat arguments crafted by the religious far-Right. Both sides provide material support to one another. As there is no question the religious far-Right actively harms women through their lobbying efforts, these links mean that we can safely say the same of TERFs. They harm all women, not just those they hate.