A “TERF” is so-called because of their denial and misunderstanding of the developments in gender theory whilst still claiming to be “feminist.” A more appropriate term for this particular species of prejudice would be FART: Feminism-Appropriating Radical Transphobe. Transphobic people cannot be feminists—by definition.
They can call themselves feminists as much as they like—free speech has afforded them that right—just as I can call myself a sea captain all I like, without actually possessing any of the attributes of a sea captain such as an ability to steer a ship.
Feminism is, by definition, the advocacy of political, economic, and social equality between the sexes. This was initially aimed at ameliorating women’s rights to match those of men, hence the name “feminism” since it has femme at its conceptive root.
As with the Black Lives Matter movement—which has been wrongly criticized for promoting favoritism and “white hatred,” among other things—feminism was seen as an attack on men rather than what it was, i.e., an egalitarian movement. All Lives Matter is a thoroughly inadequate name for an anti-racist movement purely because black people and people of color are the ones being largely marginalized, alienated, and exploited. Feminism is called feminism because women are more largely marginalized—trans women being no exception to the rule. This doesn’t mean that either feminists or anti-racists believe that they are superior or require “special treatment.”
Similarly, trans folk and trans-rights activists, in turn, are not denying feminism; they are fighting for a place to speak out, to be accepted, and to end the social and political stigma against them.
Separating Gender from Sex
In 1949, Simone de Beauvoir wrote “On ne naît pas femme, on le devient” —one is not born a woman, one becomes one. Gender has been socially imposed on individuals for a long time, and feminists recognize this. Essentially, feminism is a battle for not having one’s person or status defined by genitalia or physical attributes. This means that one’s biological sex does not define how one should be treated or perceived by any other member of society.
A man, for instance, should not be expected to be emotionless or unconcerned with fashion, children, or body image. A woman should not be expected to be obedient, subservient or sentimental, etc. Whatever prejudices you have of what a woman or man should be, they are all derived from a long history of human and societal development that may only truly be analyzed in great detail using anthropological, biological and philosophical sciences (for a good read on societal development see Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond).
A transwoman is not appropriating traditional, oppressive features of womanhood that perpetuate misogyny. She is defying oppressive features of womanhood, without being asked, without necessarily even wanting to. By this definition, FARTs (a.k.a. TERFs) cannot be feminists because they would be feeding into the anti-feminist notion that one’s genitals define who one is. Not only is this biologically incorrect—since the specific hormones found in female or male people are not a definition of who they are. Instead, they are variants, and they affect people differently and have nothing to do with gender, only biological sex. Transphobia rejects historical feminist principles and has done so since its very conception.
With the BLM protests erupting in 2020, we saw the re-emergence of photos and stories from the Stonewall Riots, Greenwich Village, New York, 1969. The image of a smiling Marsha P. Johnson has become a symbol of feminism. A black trans sex worker was there fighting for her right to be who she was. Gay rights campaigner Jean O’Leary contested the presence of cross-dressers and trans people in the movement, claiming that they were mocking cis women. In response, Silvia Riviera and Lee Brewster stood up and shouted, “you go to bars because of what drag queens did for you, and these bitches tell us to quit being ourselves!”. O’Leary later regretted what she had said. Many can only wish that contemporary anti-trans figures would come to the same revelation.
A certain number of people may undergo a sex change or hormone therapy, but this in no way invalidates how they identify or who they are. Gender is not solely defined by society or culture but is defined by many more things, including psychology, personality, and subjective experiences.
In politics, the discussion is becoming ever more notable. Italy was the third country to recognize the right to legally change one’s gender in 1982. In 2006, Italy had its first transgender member of parliament, Vladimir Luxuria. In 2015, the law officially ruled that neither sterilization nor sexual reassignment surgery was necessary to legally change one’s gender. More recently, especially in light of Joe Biden overturning Trump laws that discriminated against trans people, Italy’s left-wing political party Possibile, led by former democrat Giuseppe Civati, has ensured that LGBTQ+ rights are high on the agenda. Civati is the first politician to sign a petition aiming to improve the status of trans healthcare on a national scale via easy access to hormone therapy. This move has yet to be made in many countries.
As a gender critic, one may say that gender only exists under contingent (non-necessary) conditions of society and culture. That may be. Even if this is your position, the intersubjective experiences of many people within and without the trans community is that gender has some importance in the great and complex tapestry that makes us who we are. The numerous and novel definitions of gender and gender identities are a testament to the phenomenon’s complexity.
Ultimately, however, a reductive and single-minded attitude defines gender by contingent biological characteristics. One’s sex may or may not have a bearing on how one defines one’s gender—as is common with cis-gendered people—but it is neither necessary nor sufficient for this gender identification. FARTs/TERFs, whatever you want to call them, lack in both philosophical and biological logic.
Being Trans: The Dangers
Returning to the plight of black people in the modern world, we’ve seen a new trend of black trans lives being given a small but significant platform from which to express themselves. Unfortunately, in 2020 many black trans lives were lost in the US and elsewhere. In an article in the Independent from June of that year, Melz Owusu explains that “white people often require the complete unarmed docility of black people to even begin to consider the idea that our murders were unjust.” Owusu is speaking with Tony McDade in mind, a black trans man who a white policeman murdered in May 2020 (this was not at a BLM protest). He has been repeatedly misgendered in the press, and his death is put down to him purportedly armed and having a history of civil disobedience. When black people are being persecuted, and five cisgender men are threatening a black man for being a transgender man, Tony McDade had two options: carry a gun for the sake of defending himself from ongoing abuse or deny himself any armed protection for the sake of avoiding persecution by the police. The question has to be asked: do you think this is in any way a choice you would like to have to make? It’s doubtful.
Even in death, he is still blamed for being armed and is still misgendered despite everything. “When we are left vulnerable, we die; when we protect ourselves, we are killed,” writes Owusu. Tony was the twelfth known trans person to be killed in the US in 2020, according to the Human Rights Campaign. The “land of the free” has always been a cliché but has never seemed so crass, so starkly in contrast with reality than today—especially given ex-president Trump’s acquittal this month.
In 2020, the pandemic was ravaging the US, disadvantaging many people and rendering them homeless. Kayla Gore saw that the provisions for trans people of color were abominable, with many being asked by shelters to provide intimate details about their genitalia. Without a home to go to and without financial support from a local and national government that doesn’t recognize trans rights, many were forced into emergency sex work to make money. This not only put them in danger of contracting COVID-19, but it also put them in legal, financial, and mental instability.
Gore and her friend, Ellyahnna C. Wattshall (both black trans women), set up a now official organization that recognizes the needs of trans and other LGBTQ+ people. My Sistah’s House provides sheltered accommodation, recently built temporary housing funded by their GoFundMe, legal advice, and other forms of support to those who would otherwise have none. This problem is ongoing and continually relevant worldwide, especially with the continuing pandemic. Negative attitudes towards trans individuals are causing people serious harm when, even in their time of need, they are required to answer questions about their genitalia that would not be asked of anyone else.
Are Trans People ‘Dangerous’?
To believe that the trans community and its allies are “canceling” you out, that activists pose a threat to “women’s spaces,” is probably the crassest of all contemporary identity politics. Feminists have fought for hundreds of years against the view that our genetics, our sexual organs, must define who we are and what we do. FARTs are undoing that work or are trying to, by suggesting that one cannot be a woman if one has no womb or cannot be a man if one has no cock and balls. Furthermore, the arguments purported by such ignorant individuals hold very little epistemic credence—that is factual evidence.
Many have suggested that a trans-woman could easily rape and threaten other women in bathrooms and women’s shelters. There are two clear responses to this: the first of which is there is no evidence that any trans woman has caused such distress in this given situation. The second is that the statistics demonstrate the opposite—that trans folk are far more likely to be abused in public or private spaces.
One of the explanations for this type of accusation is psychological projection. Cis-women who have received abuse at the hands of cis-men are understandably traumatized by that, but the projection of that trauma onto trans women is not acceptable. It’s just bigotry.
Ultimately, several people are capable of causing distress and abusing those they may or may not know personally, and their gender identity is often not a determining factor. Yes, it is true that cis-men are generally seen as the most likely threatening group of suspects, but that is a discussion for another time. The psychological and sociological issues at the heart of any kind of abuse are many and various. It still doesn’t mean that, as a woman, I should persecute every cis-man because of what a minority has done to harm me. Equally, if a trans person commits an act of abuse, one should not accuse the whole community because of the actions of one individual.
It’s interesting that FARTs concentrate on the abuse they have been victim to, and the abuse they somehow believe will necessarily occur at the hands of trans women. They never talk about the abuse that trans and gender non-conforming folk are currently being subjected to worldwide—rejected health care, domestic abuse, wrongly-assumed psychological illness, familial disownment, dispossession, etc.
If they were to put as much energy into fighting the abuse and injustices experienced by trans and gender non-conforming people, the situation would of course look so very different.
The Arguments Against Trans Rights
FARTs have made an argument with troubling philosophical, biological, and political implications. Even though their arguments are so poor, many people are not equipped with the knowledge of trans identity and are easily influenced by the emotive arguments found in the ramblings of individuals such as J.K. Rowling.
Natalie of ContraPoints talks about this type of bigotry and the problems of equating bigotry and prejudice with hatred, “when you reduce bigotry to a caricature of pure hatred, you obscure that bigotry is a deeply human problem.” Any given bigot nevertheless believes in their self-righteousness. Some FARTs even go as far as to say that they aren’t transphobic because they are genuinely “concerned” for trans youth. On the face of it, this seems like a positive sentiment, but their arguments are steeped in willful ignorance and the essentially false idea that “being trans” is something to be “concerned” about.
The counterargument remains. People like Rowling have begun unpicking the work of an endless number of feminists to separate and distinguish between genitals and gender. This distinction should be as simple as distinguishing between one’s biology and one’s personality. Sure, my hormones and chemical imbalances affect who I am, but I am not reducible to them, and neither are trans individuals reducible to their hormones and biological make-up.
Why Is This Your Problem?
Unless you genuinely wish to be defined by what you’ve got between your legs, then you will be adversely affected by this strain of thinking, and therefore it is your problem.
It isn’t being argued that your biological sex shouldn’t be important to you. Of course, it should be important to you! What is being argued is that it is not all you are. Thousands of years of social change have brought us where we are today, although things are far from desirable. Your right to be who you are rather than being reduced to your chromosomes has been fought for. That is a right and not a privilege. Anyone who is denied that right is alienated, marginalized, and threatened.
Constantly, trans people are under pressure to conform to expectations or explain themselves if they don’t conform. No menopausal woman in this country is questioned when she wants HRT, yet many trans folk are asked for a psychiatric assessment before they are provided with HRT. This constant societal obligation to affirm themselves exhausts trans folk and leaves them scared, tired, and depressed—even in the best of cases.
Trans voices are without a doubt the most relevant to this subject. However, trans people are not obliged to give you an explanation or to conform to the rigid understandings of gender in society. There are plenty of trans voices out there taking the time to express their views and experiences, including YouTubers Natalie Wynn (ContraPoints), Abigail Thorne (PhilosophyTube), and Jamie Raines (Jammidodger), among others.
One shouldn’t pretend that their voice is any better or louder, but they shouldn’t stay silent when confronted with issues like this. The onus to act shouldn’t be on those who are being targeted—the burden of proof is not on the shoulders of trans folk or black folk (or any other targeted group). It’s a universal responsibility to ensure social harmony and understanding to make people aware of what is going wrong and what they can do to change that.