What is a TERF and Why it Matters in Today’s Political Climate
This is an adapted version of an essay originally published in the Washington Examiner.
After several years of fighting behind the scenes, largely ignored by politicians and media outlets that have steadfastly shut their eyes to the fact that there is a leftist feminist critique of “gender identity,” American TERFs finally have entered the public debate about whether there is such a thing as “gender identity,” and whether it deserves the same legal protections as those granted to biological sex.
But what is a TERF? I want to clear up some misconceptions about what the term means and about who we actually are as a political movement.
It is not entirely clear when the term was first coined, but it originally stood for “Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist.” Many women who are targeted with the term (which is often accompanied by threats of rape and torturous death – just ask author J.K. Rowling) take offense at it. But others have embraced it.
In recent years, gender ideologues have expanded the TERF label to apply to anyone who understands that biological sex is grounded in material reality. This is inaccurate too, because many people who understand this truth are not radical feminists. Some are conservatives. Some are liberals. In fact, most people understand that sex is grounded in reality, but they’re not necessarily radical feminists.
Finally, it is common to characterize TERFs as being essentially conservative or “right-wing reactionaries.” This is not accurate either. Radical feminists generally come from the political Left and typically have very traditional liberal values. Most American radical feminists are either Democrats or Greens, or they have become independents in the past few years because they are tired of the Democratic Party’s embrace of “gender identity” (among other things). I know of no radical feminists who are Republicans and of no Republicans who claim to be radical feminists.
So what are we, exactly? In short, a TERF is a radical feminist leftist who recognizes the material reality of sex.
I have always considered myself a feminist, although I never used to feel the need to include a qualifier like “radical,” “socialist,” “environmentalist,” or “Marxist” (there are women all over the world who use labels like these to describe themselves). I studied radical feminism in college and in law school and I was persuaded by many of its arguments, but I didn’t feel the need to situate myself in any particular subset of the feminist movement. I ended up pursuing a different professional field anyway, so there was simply no need.
That changed in 2014, when I was talking with a friend and I said something about “trans rights.” My friend stopped me in my tracks and told me that all of “transgender” is misogyny. I hadn’t heard that before, so I studied up and educated myself. I learned about the efforts to allow men who claim to be women to invade intimate spaces like bathrooms, domestic violence shelters, and women’s prisons. Women had fought for centuries to secure things like the right to vote, serve on juries, and own credit cards, and the second wave women’s liberation movement was hugely successful in the fight to protect women fleeing men’s physical and sexual abuse, among other things. I also took all of my radical feminist books down from the shelf and spent the remainder of 2014 delving into radical feminist theory and values. I was furious when I understood what was happening.
Let me be perfectly clear: The radical feminist objections to “gender identity” and “transgender” are not right-wing. I registered as a Democrat when I turned 18-years-old in 1990 and the only time since then that I have not been a Democrat was a very short period of time in 2007 when I registered with the Green Party, after which I re-registered as a Democrat in order to vote in the 2008 presidential primary election. My core values align with the political Left. I remain a Democrat today, despite my disgust with my own party’s embrace of “gender identity.”
For TERFs, the issue comes down to this: Women as a class have always been oppressed by men as a class (regardless of the benign behaviors of any individual men) on the basis of sex and we are all quite angry about it. There is a reason that suffragists had to fight for the right to vote after being denied the franchise for centuries, and that countless men and institutions fought hard to stop them. There is a reason that all over the world, men beat, rape, torture, and murder women and girls at astronomical rates. There is a reason that lesbians are routinely targeted for harassment or worse. There is a reason that men used to burn women for allegedly engaging in witchcraft. It was not on the basis of “identity” – no one bothered to ask women which pronouns they preferred. It was on the basis of sex. And now much of the “gender identity” movement denies that sex even exists or that it might matter.
The prevailing narrative is that, to be a leftist, one must accept without question all of the diktats of the “gender identity” movement. But this ignores the large segment of the left that sees how harmful and regressive this ideology is. TERFs are committed political leftists dedicated to protecting the rights, privacy, and safety of women and girls, and we aren’t going anywhere. In fact, we’re just getting started.
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