October 1, 2019

Understanding the tactics of TERFs

Trans-exclusionary radical feminists are now actively harassing transgender kids in an attempt to erase their identities. (Photo:  Antonio Guillem)

Here's how trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) are trying to hide their transphobic bigotry.

I never recommend that trans people get engaged in online discussions with militant TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists). Many of them are Internet trolls, and there will be no constructive debate.

Nevertheless,  a few times a year I do engage with them on twitter, partly to show those who are listening in that there is a different way of looking at transgender people, and partly to find out how the TERFs think. There are not many of them, but they do some serious damage, and in order to limit that damage, we need to understand what drives them.

The two main groups of TERFs

There is no simple answer to that, as the TERFs are not a homogenous group. Still, if we allow for some simplification, we could say that there are at least two groups of women associated with their cause:

  1. White, straight, middle or upper class women, who are looking for some kind of excuse to force transgender children back into the closet and restrict transgender women to their homes.
  2. Militant "radical feminists".  The latter group consists mainly of real cis lesbians (some of them channeling aggressive  masculine energies), or cis straight women who resent men so much that they "have abandoned heterosexuality" (also known as "political lesbians").

The most vocal trolls belong to the second category.

(Please note that these women represent a very small, but active, minority among feminists. Most feminists, lesbians included, support transgender people.)

The non-feminist feminists

Being a hater and a feminist causes them a lot of problems, the main one being that modern feminism actually states that all people are trapped in a false consciousness  in the cultural system we refer to as the Patriarchy.

The Patriarchy is not the end product of an evil cabal of evil men: It refers to a system of language, a model of the word, and the distribution of resources and power that affects all members of society negatively.

It is definitely true that men, and especially white men, benefit most from this system, but they are also suffering from it. They are, for instance, more likely to die a violent death than women, and they are forced to repress any sign of what culture considers "femininity", even if it is a natural part of their personality.

Men do indeed do the most to uphold the system (as seen in the current hyper-masculine Trump/Putin backlash), but many women are also invested in defending it.

In other words: It is complicated.

Weak and vulnerable

The TERFs dismiss this complexity, which is why you could argue that they are not feminists at all. They need a simplistic narrative where all men are evil and violent oppressors and all women are weak and vulnerable victims.

Ironically, this narrative is pretty similar to the right wing religious argument "that men will be men" and "women are weak" and that the weak women therefore need even more aggressive men to protect them. Apart from the last part, obviously. The militant TERFs would rather not have any men involved at all.

Their hatred of transgender women is traditional transphobia  repurposed to make sure that there is no doubt as to who are the victims and who are the perpetrators gender wise. Fanatics cannot stand ambiguity, and for them the very existence of transgender women messes up the clear boundary between men and women.

Camouflaging your bigotry

These transphobic attitudes are reinforced by Group 1 of TERFs, the transphobic soccer mums referred to above, who now see a way of defending the transphobic attitudes they have inherited from family and friends.

The TERF narrative allows them to punish their own transgender children for being trans, without being seen as the bigots they truly are. In this way they try to avoid the social stigma that follows from having a transgender child.

Harassing and invalidating children is a big no-no in feminist circles. But these TERFs can now present themselves as "saviors" of misguided "trans-trenders", which is – of course – what the  right wing religious fundamentalists do as well.

This is not about facts

The recent right wing extremist populist insurgence has proven that for the extremists facts are of no importance. That is: They may still pretend that facts matter, but they do so by relabelling outrageous lies as facts, and real facts as "fake news".

Their supporters accept all this as true, as their tribal identity and world view depend on it. Or... some of them just do not give a damn. The goal is not to find the truth, but to make sure that their tribe wins.

To give you one concrete example of how this plays out in a TERF setting, I present Exhibit 1, a caption I tweeted after a pretty rough couple of days transgender wise.

The text said:
Dear TERF, 
How many suicidal transgender people have you been talking to to this week? I have spoken to two, and it is only Tuesday. 
Words have consequences. Hatred breeds hatred. Your transphobic activism is killing people. 
Transgender people have done nothing to ruin the lives of non-transgender people. Cis people attack trans people every day. 
Stop being a bigot. Recover your heart.
Unlike most right wing extremists, TERFs have to keep up the appearance of being just and good. They cannot be seen as the violent oppressor, and they know that the 41% attempted suicide rate among trans people is a grotesque sign of how badly trans people are treated.

Sometimes they "solve" this problem by arguing that transgender are mentally ill, so the suicide rate is a reflection of them being mad, and not caused by transphobic activists like themselves.

This time however, the self-appointed guardian of the TERFs, one calling herself Sezzle, tried another approach, clearly based on discussions in TERF circles.

She argued that the high suicide rates among transgender people can be explained by them being men, and men are more likely to kill themselves than women. In other words: She managed to blame the suffering of trans people on male culture, while at the same time presenting trans women as men.

In a desperate attempt to present as reasonable, she actually manages to ignore the existence of transgender men. This is truly ironic, because the highest suicide rates among transgender youth are found among female to male trans men, not trans women. 

I told her as much, referring to a recent study of transgender adolescents 
Here are the  attempted suicide rates among adolescents  in the US: Teenage FTM trans men 51%, teenage MTF trans women 30%, nonbinary trans adolescents  42%,  female adolescents 18%, and male adolescents 10%. Being trans makes a huge difference.
This is not the only study that documents that trans men are more likely to try to commit suicide than trans women.

Following her logic, that high suicide rates are a male thing, this would be clear (but tragic) proof of trans men being truly men.

I got no response. These facts did not fit the narrative, so they had to be ignored.

This is reflected in everything the TERFs do. They do pretend to make use of facts, and if they refer to science it is the kind of scientists most feminists would shun. They are, for instance, actively using the transphobic "autogynephilia" theory  (Exhibit 2) to give their writing a scientific veneer, ignoring the fact that the theory is based on Patriarchal sexist theories developed in the 19th century. Indeed, I have seen lesbian TERFs presenting the people behind the autogynephilia theory, Ray Blanchard and J. Michael Bailey, as heroes, in spite of the fact they both argue homosexuality is a mental illness. 

The right wing religious transphobes are now using TERFs as witnesses of truth, not because they like feminists, but because they want to divide and defeat the LGBTQA community. The TERFs willingly participate in this charade.

Tweet from Norway's leading nazi, with a photo of him and Posie Parker, one of the most influential British TERFs. I am sure she will tell you that she did not know that he is a nazi, but the event was arranged by Pål Steigan, a Norwegian Maoist, Stalinist and Pol Pot supporter, now a strong defender of Syria's dictator Bashar al-Assad.  Moreover, if a nazi loves your position on transgender issues, you should definitely take a closer look at what you are doing. You are judged by the company you keep, I say.

There is no point in debating with fanatics

It makes as much sense to debate with a militant TERFs as it does to engage in a conversation with right wing extremists like Donald Trump. It doesn't work. All they can see is the conflict and the battle. They see no common ground and behave accordingly.

That does not mean that we are to stop debating them or exposing their bigotry in public. Far from it. We need to do so in order to stop good people from being dragged down into their black holes of darkness. They want to dehumanize trans people. Well, let us humanize trans people. They pretend they are decent feminists of good will. Let us show they world that they are not.

Further reading:


  1. One question, what are "aggressive masculine energies"? I'm just a little uncomfortable with that phrase for reasons you can probably guess.

  2. I understand. I tried different terms, but this was as close as I got.

    The lesbian community is as diverse as the gay male community or even parts of the cis straight community as regards masculinity or femininity. I love that diversity: From extreme femme to extreme butch, if we are to use the traditional lesbian terms.

    But some lesbian TERFs (like, for instance, "Dirt from the Dirt") channel a kind of hypermasculine aggression, which is – in some ways, but not all - related to the one found in right wing extremist male rage.

    There are probably a lot of reasonable reasons for this – including them being exposed to abuse, harassment and your run of the mill male invalidation – but the end result is, unfortunately, very destructive for trans people.

    Masculinity can be good. Masculinity can be bad. But in some cases it turns toxic. This applies to both men and women, gay or straight, trans or cis.

    1. Big surprise from that Dirt link, that the word TERF came into vogue as recently as between 2013 and 2015. I absolutely did not know that. (I also noticed 'girlfriend' as opposed to 'wife'.)

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    3. There is no such thing as "toxic masculinity" because whether behaviour is toxic or not does not depend on how masculine or feminine behaviour is but on whether it has a negative impact on people.

    4. No, Anonymous, that's not what it means. And I know a lot of people have trouble with this concept so I hope this will make sense. No, it's not "acting masculine" that creates the toxicity: it's the baggage that's loaded on to the idea of what is 'masculine'. The traditional 'manly' values guys are taught: you can't properly express your emotions; you can't cry; you have to succeed at all things all the time; you have to be in control... and so on. All these things that are inflicted, mostly on men - don't forget, it's primarily *men* who suffer from toxic masculinity - that don't recognise that people are different as individuals. We all have different abilities and aptitudes, different emotional makeup, different personalities. Toxic masculinity doesn't allow for that. It demands conformity to a kind of 'masculine ideal', and that oppresses men. And it is a secondary effect, though NO less damaging and harmful, that in seeking to conform to those expectations men can become overly aggressive, overly controlling, because they feel forced to prove themselves against these toxic imposed 'standards'.

      We're often reminded that suicide is one of the leading killers of men - and so it is. And it's often - not always, but often - the unreasonable, unyielding expectations of "what it means to be a man" that contributes to the inability of these men to reach out and seek the support they need.

      THAT is 'toxic masculinity'. It's not just 'being a man'.

    5. Have you ever consider the possibility that the reason why suicide is one of the leading killers of men is because of the unreasonable, unyielding expectations society has for them to be less like a man? Remember, the aggressive qualities men have that a lot of people see as toxic are the same qualities you need in a fireman. When you are in a burning building you want him to be overly aggressive and overly controlling because these qualities wil save your life. Now of course these qualities can be detrimental to other situations but that's exactly my point. whether behaviour is toxic or not is circumstantial.

  3. there is little point in arguing with any form of fanaticism in this world because these are not people interested in discourse but are instead blinded by agenda. The best defense for all trans people is to build a tough skin and carry on the fight using truth and justice as a guiding principle. The TERF and evangelical "Christians" are on the same side because their plan is only to discredit and destroy; not listen. Their philosophies do not allow a world where trans people can be allowed to exist with dignity.

    I have given up on unreasonable people and only deal with those who can be convinced through logic, intelligence and compassion, all qualities these radicals lack.

    Thankfully the vast majority of people can be reasoned with and educated over time.


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