TERFism Online – Down the Rabbit Hole

As a younger teenager in the early to mid 2010s, I found myself submerged in online radical feminist spaces on sights such as Tumblr and Twitter. I was young and angry at the world in which I found myself, and it was thus incredibly comforting for me to find a group of like-minded women who shared my upset and frustration at the violently patriarchal society we inhabited. It was in these spaces, that for the first time in my adolescent life, I truly felt as though I was part of a community.

However, the further I fell down the rabbit hole of online radical feminist spaces, I began to recognise an emerging enemy. This enemy was not femicide, nor was it domestic violence, harassment or any factor one might imagine contributing to the oppression of the modern woman. Our ultimate enemy was the emergence of ‘gender ideology’. ‘TRAs’ or trans rights activists were attempting to erase women and the very concept of womanhood itself. They insisted that men could have periods, and God forbid, even have children. They were sending hoards of men into women’s prisons, women’s centres and bathrooms, men who were supposedly intent of murdering and raping us.

The trans exclusionary rhetoric began with light criticism of gender recognition acts, but the further one delved into these communities the hatred of trans people and their allies became increasingly violent and vitriolic. The young women in these communities, it seemed, were being indoctrinated into a trans exclusionary form of radical feminism known as TERFism.

Sensing this hatred and rampant bigotry, I distanced myself from these communities, instead finding intersectional feminism as an equally radical but significantly more inclusive alternative. I hoped that TERFism would simply wither and die in the fringe depths of the internet where I had discovered it. It seems, however, as though the opposite has happened.

TERF rhetoric has become increasingly prevalent in British media, politics and academia. High profile authors and politicians, such as JK Rowling and Joanna Cherry, have publicly aligned themselves with the ‘gender critical’ movement. While researching this article, I came across countless think-pieces exploring the so-called end of free speech in British academia, with some articles even declaring a supposed “plotted gender ID witch hunt” committed by left wing scholars against their ‘gender critical’ colleagues. However, left out almost completely from this conversation are the voices of trans academics and students, who surely must have the most important insight into how this phenomenon is playing out in academic institutions.

A lone article from Pink News, a trans-inclusionary queer news source, examines the damage that this highly public debate has caused to the lives of trans academics and students. A whopping 1 in 7 trans students in the UK will drop out, or at least consider dropping out, before the end of their studies. Many trans academics fear revealing their identity to colleagues and have stayed silent on the current trans debate, worrying that voicing their opinion will lead to ostracisation from those they work with. Although TERFs claim that this hard-left which hunt is targeting and silencing women, it is rather unsurprising that it is trans people who are truly taking the brunt of the hate from this very publicised discourse.

With TERFism taking centre stage in British politics, and particularly with recent blocking of the Scottish gender recognition bill, I decided to reach out to Lauren, who goes by the handle gothamshitty on Twitter and TikTok. Lauren was one of the first creators I discovered after leaving online radfem spaces, and it was her content that first educated me about transmisogyny, sex-worker-exclusionary feminism and many other hugely important topics. It was an honour to work with her on this article, and I believe this interview is a wonderful starting place for those interested in learning more about TERFism and what we can do to protect trans people from its harmful ideological intentions.

Hello Lauren! It is an absolute privilege to be able to interview you as I have keenly followed your work online since early 2021. Would you be able to explain to our readers who you are, what led to your interest in feminism and what inspired you to begin creating educational content?

Thank you so much for the opportunity! 

I’m Lauren, a 26-year-old college graduate that makes feminist content on Twitter and TikTok under the username @gothamshitty.  I first became interested in feminism when I was 15 years old after first hearing about it on Tumblr.  I’ve since studied feminism both formally in school through a few Gender Studies electives and informally on my own as a personal hobby.

I started casually using TikTok in 2020 but did not start making content of my own until 2021, after I discovered that a lot of the #feminist content contained TERF rhetoric.  This worried me because I had first seen this kind of rhetoric on Tumblr when I was 16 years old, and it led me down a pipeline of transphobia disguised as feminism that I did not get out of until I was 18.  I was disturbed to find that this pipeline still existed and was beginning to emerge on TikTok, which I knew was quickly becoming one of the most popular apps among kids and teens.  I decided to make my own content to warn others about this pipeline, talk about my experiences with it, debunk some of the popular TERF talking points, and introduce young girls to alternative feminisms that are wholly trans-inclusive and just as radical.

Why do you believe that radical feminism as an ideology has become so intrinsically linked with transphobia? Would you be able to explain what bioessentialism is and how it pertains to to radical feminist, particularly TERF, ideology?

I think radical feminism became particularly vulnerable to transphobic appropriation because many of the original radical feminist writers of the second wave based their feminism on a singular, universalized conception of womanhood and manhood, solely defined by reproductive capacity.  These writers often took the sex binary for granted and did not meaningfully interrogate the social processes that give rise to the category of “man” and “woman” in the first place.  Because of this, the popular radical feminist understanding of “woman” and “man” are bioessentialist ones – both are defined solely by their biological functions, as either male or female.  Trans people, in this understanding, therefore cannot be recognized by their chosen gender; they can only be identified by their sex.     

In one of your videos you speak about the similarities between the alt-right pipeline and process of indoctrination from radical feminism to trans-exclusionary feminism. As someone who spent a lot of time in online radical feminist circles as a very young teenager, I’ve seen first hand how this indoctrination plays out. I also find the comparison between TERFs and the alt-right pipeline (as well as manosphere groups such as incels and men’s rights activists) to be particularly interesting as both of these fringe, incredibly online groups have become increasingly publicised, with their rhetoric becoming more and more widely used in mainstream discourse. I was wondering if you discuss further how online radical feminist spaces act as a pipeline to transphobia, and any other potential similarities you have noticed between right wing indoctrination and TERF indoctrination?

Both TERFs and the alt-right utilize tactical language, talking points, and dog whistles to make their ideology appear harmless to the young people they want to attract.  TERFs specifically use the façade of radical feminism to make content that appeals to new, inexperienced feminists looking to learn more about the movement.  Once TERFs get you to follow them (often by only displaying content that isn’t outwardly transphobic), they’ll rely on the algorithm to show you the actual “gender critical” content from further inside their communities.  Because the TERFs have developed that rapport as “legitimate feminists”, new feminists are more likely to hear them out on their talking points about trans people, thinking it to be part of mainstream feminist theory.  Like the alt-right, they often utilize misconstrued and misrepresented studies and statistics to back up their claims.

  1. From my experience, many young girls turn towards radical feminism, and eventually TERFism as a result of pent up anger, frustration and sadness at the violently patriarchal world we live in. What do you think is a healthier alternative for young women who feel this frustration and how do we make these options more widely available to them in order to stop their radicalisation by TERFS?

It’s certainly true that many girls end up dealing with difficult emotions as a result of living in our misogynist society.  These girls often end up searching online for answers as to why they feel this way, and far too often are TERFs there to welcome them into their communities with enticingly simplistic explanations of oppression, and trans people as a scapegoat.  Trans-inclusive feminists need to counter this pipeline by making our own spaces and communities that offer support for these girls in ways that does not stoke transphobia.  I think we can do this by validating those girls’ feelings and placing them within the context of our patriarchal/white supremacist/capitalist society, all the while making it clear that trans people are not our oppressors, but rather our comrades in struggle.

In Britain we have seen a huge rise in Transphobia in all sectors of the public. However academic and political institutions in particular have seen a rise in specifically bioessentialist and TERF rhetoric.  Should we be concerned that these transphobic ideas are no longer being discussed in small online or radical spaces but instead in very public domains, by academics and politicians?

Yes, we should definitely be very concerned about the mainstreaming of TERFism.  In many different countries, TERF and gender critical groups are forming and rallying alongside the far-right against trans liberties and freedoms.  Combined with the cultural presence they are forging with figures like JK Rowling, TERFs are proving to be an emerging force of hatred towards trans people.

Lastly, what advice would you have for trans and gender non conforming students and trans allies at UofG, and in wider society, especially in a time when we see this hateful rhetoric coming from such powerful voices around us?

I’d want all of my trans and gender nonconforming peers to know that they are not alone, and that the amount of people who support them majorly outnumbers the amount of right-wingers that oppose them.  Great progress has already been made over the last 100 years thanks to the grassroots organizing efforts of the LGBTQ+ community, and we can continue to make more progress by working together.  We’ve already seen anti-trans bills get shot down and transphobic figureheads get deplatformed thanks to the rallying of trans people and their allies, so we know that it’s possible to fight this wave of far-right hatred effectively.

[by Ailbhe Murphy]

[Image credits: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=blgvslrfYV8&ab_channel=surrealentertainment%5D


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