Friday, March 17, 2017

Why I Dislike the Term "TERF."

If you've spent any time in the transgender community you've probably heard the term TERF at least once. And no, it's not the transgender equivalent of the toy gun that shoots foam darts.

Like all girls, transgirls use Rebelle brand foam dart guns.

TERF is an acronym for "Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist." You can read a little more about in on the Geek Feminism Wiki or the Rational Wiki, but the essential idea is that some women who self-identify as feminists believe that gender is more inherent to birth and that gender transition and transgenderism are invalid concepts. They believe that transgender women are decidedly not women and that transgender women are just men who are invading the last bastions of female safety. The women who espouse these beliefs do not like to be called "TERFs." Though perhaps it was best summed in this tasteless and ignorant comment by Germaine Greer “Just because you lop off your dick and then wear a dress doesn’t make you a fucking woman.”*

First off, they don't actually lop your dick off, I mean, they actually disassemble it and reassemble into a new shape. It's like a Transformer! Okay, but I digress.

When it comes to people who espouse ideas like Ms. Greer's I definitely disagree with them for a variety of reasons. I think that like many attacks on transgender people, these are coming from a place of ignorance where the attacker seems to know virtually nothing about the reality of transgender experience. Let me also say that I vehemently disagree that anyone has the right to claim themselves as the sole gatekeeper of womanhood.

But, I wouldn't call them a TERF. The term TERF is a pejorative and its a term that those people reject to the point of taking offense. Calling them any derogatory name is an unnecessary ad hominem attack that dehumanizes them, groups them all, makes them easy to dismiss and shuts down any possible conversation. If we want these people to see us as complex individuals, then it's only fair that we endeavor to see them the same way.

I do think there is validity in the idea that cis women have a different experience than trans women. Yes, I think we are all women, but we are different. Many trans women have experienced male privilege and this does color our perception of the world. Trans women do experience the world differently than cis women do. And I would vehemently disagree with any trans women who claims that trans and cis women have the same experience. Though I also disagree that this fact means that trans women aren't real women.

Poor women and rich have a different experience. American women and Mongolian women have a different experience. A woman with cerebral palsy experiences the world differently than an able bodied woman. Our different experiences do not make us more or less worthy of being called women. There is no platonic ideal, some imaginary "woman" to which all other beings claiming to be women must be compared and judged to pass or fail.

So, with that in mind, I would never begrudge anyone's desire to say that there is meaning in their experience. A woman like Ms. Greer finds value in her experience as a cis woman. But that value shouldn't diminish anyone else's ability to find value in their own experience as any type of woman. Each of us has a unique experience and each of those experiences is special. It's a perspective on the universe that will never exist again. But not one of us is in the right when they say that their experience is more special or more valuable than another's experience.

If a group of cis women who have shared similar experiences want to have a meeting or a group where they can get together and share their experience with similar people I find it hard to disagree with that. So when cis women want to have an event for only cis women (say a music festival in Michigan), I am hard pressed to find a reason to say "no, you have to include me." I would of course point out that policing such a policy presents a huge opportunity to make a lot of blunders in how they treat people and I would disagree if, in their attempt to create a space for themselves, they start treating people, anyone, badly.

Now, I'm sure many transgender people are going to disagree with me. I think the most common argument would be that any situation that excludes us simply because we're transgender helps create and fuel an environment where we are discriminated against. Trans people, they'd argue, are already discriminated against quite a bit, and we should fight against anything that can contribute to more discrimination. It's a powerful argument.

So, what? Do I agree with both sides? You can't do that can you? Isn't that just a cop out? Here's why I don't think it is. I think that cis women (or any group of women) have the right to have their own spaces so long as they don't create a policing policy that hurts people and so long as they don't deny the validity of anyone else's experience. You want to call it the Michigan Cis Women's Musical Festival and make it invitation only? Knock yourselves out. But when you call it an event for women and then deny trans women entry because you deny that they are women? That's where I think the line is crossed.

And I think that trnas people should absolutely fight against discrimination. But I think they should also take a close look so they don't, in their zeal, deny someone else a safe space to celebrate common experiences. Inclusion is a fantastic thing. We should all be more inclusive. But sometimes people do need a space where they can share with people who have had a similar experience. Just as an able bodied person like myself shouldn't demand inclusion in a space for people with cerebral palsy, sometimes trans people shouldn't demand inclusion into every single cis woman's space. And so no one comes after me with pitchforks, let me it clear that the exclusion is not always discriminatory, but it absolutely is discriminatory when trans women are denied a space that is clearly described as being for "all women." It helps our cause to know the difference.

It's my opinion that we all, cis women and trans women, have way more in common than we might realize and we have much bigger enemies than each other. I will always argue for listening to each other, respecting each other and trying to work together. Calling each other names and denying each other validity, dehumanizing each other - none of this helps anyone. The world is nuanced and so should our dialogue be.

*And I should just say, this is going off what I've read. If I am wrong, please point me to a better source of information.


  1. Hi Faith

    I reckon you 've got it about right on here. I feel Germaine Greer's comments are rude and bigoted - and more recently in the UK we've had similar comments from Jenni Murray, a presenter on BBC Radio's Woman's Hour, who was writing in the Sunday Times at the time. They certainly don't have the final say on what constitutes womanhood.

    When out, I find that the vast majority of women treat me with respect - I like to feel that's because I haven't been read, but more realistically it's almost always that they see no reason to be rude. Please note, Ms Greer and Murray.

    Recently one our top golf clubs has finally decided to admit women to their clubhouse - I don't why it has taken so long, but I wonder if it was men that were being excluded, which side these two women would be on. Sure, in some circumstances they have the right to say cis women only - but that should be for specific reasons, not because Trans women have not suffered all the disadvantages of being women all their lives. They may well have suffered discrimination at a level many women have not experienced. Also, they are much more likely to be sympathetic to women in general - those transwomen that aren't, and like to see themselves as being better than women, deserve to be locked in a room with Ms Greer, who, I'm sure, will let them know the error of their ways.

    Well written, Faith - keep up the good work

    Michelle x

    ps I also agree that we shouldn't be rude back - it lowers the argument to their level - it's difficult to accuse others of being aggressive or disrespectful when we have done the same.

    1. Hi Michelle, thanks for your thoughts. Hopefully as we transgender lives become more and more "normal" the bigots will fade away. Hopefully.