Mapping the TERF: Transphobia in Feminism

The Crown Prosecution Service describes transphobia as ‘fear or dislike directed towards trans people’. This can include insisting that trans people are “not real women” or “not real men”, that binary genders are the only valid kind, and deliberate misgendering or refusal to refer to a person using their preferred pronouns. In more extreme cases, transphobia has motivated sexual assault and murder- these kind of hate crimes are on the rise. According to a 2016 study by the Independent, the number of transphobic hate crimes reported to UK police has nearly trebled (rising by 170%) in the past five years. Depressingly, prosecution rates are low, and have fallen further during this five-year period, numbering only 19 last year despite 582 cases being reported. The perpetrators of transphobic crime are usually cis males, whilst trans females constitute the vast majority of victims.

With this in mind, it seems bizarre to consider the existence of a certain group of radical feminists, casually dubbed ‘TERFS’: ‘Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists’- a title which really speaks for itself. How can a group of people committed to promoting gender equality not only be unconcerned with, but also actively speak out against and exclude a frequently disadvantaged minority group?

Worryingly transphobic attitudes have come to the world’s attention most recently in the form of so-called ‘bathroom bills’ in the US. In case you’re not familiar with the saga, certain legislators in North Carolina believe that chaos and rape will ensue if people are allowed to use the public bathrooms of the gender with which they personally identify. That’s right- the locale in which people choose to spend a penny is an issue of public safety. The law basically insists that citizens may only relieve themselves in the bathroom which matches the sex on their birth certificate. This can be changed, but not without bureaucratic rigmarole and the necessity of undergoing gender reassignment surgery- a step which is obviously not for everyone. The bill’s justification- that excluding trans women from the ladies’ loos protects cis women- is a complete joke, since zero cases of a trans woman assaulting a cis woman in a public bathroom have been reported. Ironically, the reverse is not true. Additionally, this flimsy justification plays into the hackneyed narrative that women are victims who need to be protected from the inevitable and uncontrollable force that is male sexual violence, as well as explicitly vilifying trans women.

Perhaps anxieties such as this have helped to create an atmosphere in which transphobia can permeate feminism. As a movement founded on the principle of promoting equality for women, some view people who were initially raised as male as a sort of encroachment. The radical feminist academic, Germaine Greer, for example, told the BBC in 2015 that transgender women are “not women”. She argued that the issues faced by cis women should be feminism’s priority, and called the American television personality and former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner’s transition “[un]fair”, since she’d previously enjoyed the privileged position of being a man in a patriarchal society, yet could suddenly decide “that the whole time he’s been a woman.”

This seems misguided, since transitioning can hardly be seen as a whim, as Greer’s remark comes close to implying. The physical and psychological stress of gender reassignment surgery and hormone treatment is surely stressful enough to be discouraging, without even mentioning the depressing likelihood of encountering abuse and hatred. This bitterness towards trans women can also be seen in the radical environmental feminist group Deep Green Resistance (DGR), who have gone so far as to state that transgenderism has been detrimental to the process of women’s liberation. Another prominent radical feminist, Julie Bindel, has stated that ‘transsexualism, by its nature, promotes the idea that it is ‘natural’ for boys to play with guns and girls to play with Barbie dolls’. If anything, this naturalisation of gender roles is dismantled by the fact that we are no longer saddled with the genders society assigns to us at birth. Bindel’s comment also implies that all trans women are stereotypically ‘feminine’, and all trans men ‘masculine’, denying the individuality of personal identity, which of course can’t be reduced to how we’re gendered.

Perhaps the issues faced by trans women are different to those faced by their cis counterparts, but this is also true of women of different classes, skin colours, and cultures. Feminism now, I would hope, wouldn’t dream of excluding any of these groups from its ranks. What even constitutes a “real” woman? In previous eras being too rigorously educated, a lesbian, or childless was enough for society to revoke your womanly status. No one can determine a person’s gender but themselves, and, this aside, feminism in its essence is so inherently inclusive that transphobia simply has no place. If trans people are excluded from feminism, is it really feminism?

[Bethany Garner]

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