TERF Wars

This post is part of my 2019 Pride Month series “Proudly Reaffirming Identity, Diversity, and Equity,” exploring present-day issues facing the LGBTQ+ and allied communities.

It’s a logical dilemma, I told my friend Cole. We’ve been friends for over a decade–we met in an online writers forum and though we’ve never met in person, I consider Cole one of my closest friends. When you share your writing with someone, an intimacy develops that rivals romance, and Cole has not only shared but inspired my stories.

Cole is also trans, and while I was investigating transgender issues more deeply and hitting mental blocks of my own to better understand trans experiences, Cole was kind enough to let me lean into the discomfort and talk about the hard things.

Cole has also given me permission to share some of the words we exchanged, for which I’m especially grateful: Not only did their words help me understand things more deeply, they also said them far more eloquently than I ever could.

The conversation began when Cole told me that a number of links recommended to me as a starting point for reading more about transgender issues represent a particular set of opinions commonly referred to as TERF, or Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism. This offshoot of feminism sees transwomen (that is, people assigned male at birth who have transitioned to female, with or without gender reassignment surgery) as men who are attempting to invade and overtake women-only spaces. On the surface, the TERF concern seems genuine: Some transwomen who grew up being socialized as male maintain the sense of entitlement and privilege that males are afforded in our patriarchal society. Then, when some of these transwomen enter spaces predominantly serving and supporting women, they continue to act like they know best and refuse to listen and respect the opinions and experiences of those other than themselves.

This is, of course, not true for all transwomen, and I personally don’t know any transwomen who seem to fit this criteria. On the contrary, I know transmen who have spoken very vocally about how, when they began to present as male, the world responded to them differently–they were afforded more status than when they had presented as female, regardless of all other things being equal. It’s a statement of where we are as a society more than a reflection upon individual people.

There’s also a concern (not supported by statistics) that some men identify as transgender purely to enter women-only spaces to victimize them.

Again, this is not supported by statistics. On the contrary, trans people are more far likely to be victimized (in single-sex or gender-neutral spaces) than their peers.

Another TERF concern is that transactivism erases women, in particular lesbians. The reasoning seems to be this: If you’re assigned female at birth but love women, then the “solution” is to become a man–thereby erasing lesbians. Further, changing language to be more inclusive by saying “people” instead of “men” or “women” also appears to erase women, thus making trans-inclusive policy seem–at least superficially–misogynistic.

Whether or not the concerns of Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists are reasonable is ultimately besides the point: the tactics such people use to exclude trans people are harmful regardless. Often, their arguments can be boiled down to just two ideas: First, trans people only transition to avoid being gay so, two, trans people don’t really exist.

I shouldn’t need to say it, but I’m gonna say it anyways: This line of reasoning is incredibly hurtful to trans people. It’s like me telling a friend of color that because melanin is only skin deep and there’s no biological difference in races past appearances that black people don’t exist. Just writing that makes me feel angry and hurtful. And yet some people don’t realize how hurtful these TERF-like remarks can be.

This post isn’t going to be a discussion of TERF ideology, nor is it directly intended to be a total condemnation of their worldviews. I might disagree with some of what they say, and especially how they say it, but in trying to do this topic justice, I did read those incendiary articles–and as I read them, I found myself also agreeing with them.

Thus came the deeper parts of my conversation with Cole.

It’s logical dilemma, I said–because even though I know logic isn’t the most important thing when we’re talking about how people feel, I’m a mathematician: if I can’t understand something logically, it’s incredibly difficult for me to talk about it–and if my goal as a blogger is to talk about things, then I need to make logical sense of them.

And like any mathematician, I began with two postulates:

A: Gender is socially constructed, so gender expression shouldn’t be restricted based upon physical sex.

B: If someone is assigned a sex at birth and identifies with the gender of the opposite sex, they are transgender.

However, these two things–which I wholly accepted–seemed inherently contradictory.

1. If gender is socially constructed, doesn’t that mean transitioning (taken broadly, not specifically surgery) is changing the self to fit the norms of the society?

2. Or is it more about the physical sex rather than the gender expression not matching how one identifies?

Here I became very confused and knotted up because it seems on one hand we’re saying “be yourself–don’t pay attention to what society says you should be” and then saying “being yourself is being what society says people who do what you do should be like.”

I felt like I was conflating things that shouldn’t be taken together, overlooking the fact that gender is a spectrum and not a binary scale, and missing the importance of first-hand experience, but I wasn’t sure how to tease it all out and make sense of things.

Despite my trying to be impartial, my postulates had themselves been built upon biased grounds: Gender and sex are not binary scales, so my phrasing of postulate B excluded people who don’t identify on either end of the spectrum. Cole suggested a more inclusive wording: if someone identifies as a gender other than that which they were assigned at birth, they can identify as transgender. This also shifts the focus from the society to the individual. It isn’t about what society thinks–it’s about what the individual feels.

This was reflected in the remainder of Cole’s response, lovingly provided below:

The questions implicit in 1 and 2 are complicated!

Social transition (everything that isn’t medical) is about asking the world to see you as you are. From a trans perspective that means changing others so that they see your truth. Once given support, you might change things about your body to more easily live that (e.g., surgery, hair length, use of makeup), but you might not, and it doesn’t negate the essential internal truth that you want others to acknowledge.

I also think that I don’t find your A and B to be as inherently contradictory as you do. A talks about social/cultural phenomenon by saying “Society should not punish people for choosing to present in non-normative ways.” B talks about personal identity by saying “If you don’t identify as whatever people assume you are, you have the right to tell them they’re wrong and they should respect that.”

They’re different scales. The overlap is roughly “Don’t be an asshole” with a side of “If you make assumptions about people, be prepared to have them corrected, because you can make incorrect assumptions.”

This response helped things click in place logically for me: I was no longer looking at the situation as a “me versus them” dichotomy, but as a “how we should work together” philosophy: As an individual, it is up to me to decide what I think, feel, and do. But as a society, it’s your responsibility to acknowledge and accept what I think, feel, and do.

We as individuals have the responsibility to be supportive and affirming of trans people without expecting or demanding them to present themselves in a specific way.

Maybe how a trans person presents themselves challenges my personal conceptions of gender–and oh-the-fuck-well if it does. That’s my problem to deal with, not theirs, and it’s not appropriate for me to demand that they look/feel/behave/act differently because I feel uncomfortable. That’s honestly just self-centered and childish.

This brings me back to some other ideas expressed in the TERF-like articles that had been sent to me. First of these is the notion that encouraging people, in particular children, to transition to their preferred gender is anti-gay: It’s like saying, as a man who likes men, I shouldn’t be gay (because being gay is bad) and instead become a woman. The problem here is that society is neither supporting nor affirming my identity as a gay man–instead society is saying I should conform to their gender and sexuality norms, so by transitioning I wouldn’t be affirming myself, but instead affirming their worldview.

This is wrong. And it wrongly treats gender and sexuality as the same thing, when they are not: I know transwomen lesbians and gay transmen. Sure, for probably most people, we can think of sexuality and gender as being the same because of the society we live in and the cultural factors that wrongly conflate the two–that is, at least and until you go outside the gender and sexuality norms of the society we live within. I didn’t stop being a man because I don’t love women sexually–it just means I don’t love women sexually. Likewise, a trans person’s sexuality doesn’t depend on their gender identity.

However, to say sexuality and gender don’t depend upon the society we live within says is also incorrect, because they do. It’s also worth remembering that societies aren’t static throughout time–as a society and culture changes, so do our conceptions of both gender and sexuality. Another of Cole’s responses highlights this perfectly.

I mostly think about it in terms of butch women, because the specific divide between butch women and afab [assigned female at birth] trans people is partially just cultural. If I’d been born and raised a couple decades ago, I would probably identify as butch instead of trans; there are also butch people who would identify as trans if they were growing up in this culture. So, again, we’re back to everything being culturally constructed — which is impossible to ignore — and personal experience/identity being created out of your personal cultural/social environment.

So while there is interplay between our personal experiences and the culture and society we’re raised in, and that might influence the terms we use to identify ourselves, it doesn’t dictate whether or not choosing our identity is our right. Again, it’s the question of self or society: The self may be partly shaped by the society, but it is still the responsibility of the society to respect the self. That respect is what drives our pursuit of equal rights.

The second TERF argument I’d like to address is the belief that encouraging children to transition as children is dangerous because if a child transitions, and then later feels badly about it, they can’t go back. I get this concern–I really do–but I think the reason it seems so bad is because there’s a lack of understanding about what transitioning is.

First, transitioning isn’t always physical; in fact, most trans people aren’t able to afford the surgeries necessary for a full physical transition. Second, hormone therapy for children only delays puberty; if a child later feels they’ve made a “wrong” decision, stopping hormone therapy will allow puberty to occur normally. This delay is reversible–however, once puberty happens and secondary sex traits (enlarged breasts, body hair, etc.) develop, these changes are far less easily reversed. Third, there is no scientific evidence suggesting that someone needs to experience puberty in order to know if they identify as the gender assigned to them at both; anyone saying otherwise is misinformed at best. Fourth, there is limited research on how many people who begin identifying as trans as children discontinue this identity later in life; what preliminary research we have so far says this percentage is incredibly low, and even if it weren’t, the fact that hormone therapy delaying puberty is reversible should eliminate this cause for alarm.

All this dialog doesn’t yet address a fundamental facet of TERF wars–the facet shining forth from its very name: Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism. Should transwomen be excluded from women’s only spaces? The question is complicated, because no matter how supportive and affirming we should be to trans people, we can’t do this at the expense of being supportive and affirming to people who aren’t trans. If a ciswoman feels uncomfortable in what should be a supportive place, what do we do about it?

My experience as an educator makes me think about how I’d respond to this discomfort if it were instead two of my students having a conflict in class: I’d take time to speak with both of them, to learn more about them and why they’re feeling uncomfortable, and then I’d speak with them together to help facilitate a restorative conversation that respects both people and helps all of us figure out a way forward together.

Will both students suddenly become friends? One could hope, but it’s not necessary, so long as both students feel comfortable in the space, safe and respected and listened to. Does this process take time? Yes. And effort? Absolutely. Can it be uncomfortable? Certainly, but discomfort isn’t a bad thing–in fact, discomfort is necessary if we want to learn and grow, and when we learn and grow, discomfort is only temporary.

There are many places that some feel should be for women only, and as conflict grows from a few individuals to many, the ease of implementing a restorative approach decreases. If an entire group of women feel threatened by the presence of even just one transwoman, the response is going to look a lot different than it would in my classroom. And frankly, it’s probably going to be a lot harder to implement. However, that added difficulty should not mean that the single transwoman should be forced out of that space or forced to conform in ways not genuine to her. Yes, it’s asking a lot that every other woman in that space should confront their biases and grow to accept people who are different, but in a world divided into advantaged and disadvantages groups, the group afforded the greater power is the one responsible for listening and learning.

Just like, as a white person, it’s my responsibility to listen and learn from people of color, so that my actions support and affirm them rather than continue to disadvantage them.

Just like, as a cisgender person, it’s my responsibility to listen and learn from trans people, to support and affirm them rather than continue to disadvantage them.

When this series began, I grounded it all in the meaning of the word pride: the conscious acknowledgement of our own worth. This is all fine and dandy as individuals, but if we only go so far as to celebrate our own worth, we’re little more than narcissists. True Pride comes also from consciously acknowledging the worth of others–not because they’ve done great and fantastic things, but because they, too, are worthy. They are human, they have hearts and minds and feelings, and for all that, they matter.

Being an ally means honoring that worth in other people even when it makes us uncomfortable. My discomfort is temporary: I can go home and continue to be a man without worrying about any of this if I don’t want to. That is a safety society has afforded me without my doing anything to earn it. For a trans person, that safety is gone–there is no escape unless and until the threat is removed. And that threat comes from us.

So I will bear this discomfort, I will listen and learn and then share what I learn with others, so together, one moment at a time, we can truly honor everybody for being whoever they are–and whoever they want to be.


Further reading:

‘Pro-Lesbian’ or ‘Trans-Exclusionary’? by Julie Compton, Jan. 14, 2019

10 TERF ‘arguments’ that need to stop by Cursed E, Feb. 5, 2018

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3 thoughts on “TERF Wars

  1. Wow, all your posts I’ve read so far have been so differentiated and thoughtful, I will come back for more! Also thanks for introducing me to TERF, I also think that this kind of discrimination (can we can it that?) has to stop. Sex, gender, and orientation (among others) are definitely unrelated in a single person (even though there are correlations on the societal level, but they’re not really relevant for the combination of these factors within an individual). Also a warm thank you to Cole for sharing!

    • Thank you so much, Thomas! I appreciate the positive affirmation. :)

      I’m not sure if I would call TERD discrimination, although I do think there are discriminatory aspects to the messaging and perspectives I’ve seen. I don’t know these individuals well enough to know their intent, but discrimination depend upon intent? I suppose it might be the distinction between de factor segregation and de jure segregation…

      • Hmm, I’d say discrimination is independent of intent. The definition I know just says that discrimination occurs when one treats somebody differently because of a characteristic (like gender). That being said, I’m sure that “TERF authors“ don’t have bad intentions. They just want to protect their ingroup.

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