'Feminists' Who Exclude Trans Women Aren't Feminists At All

TERFs and their transphobic message have become pawns of American right-wing groups.
The London Pride parade this past weekend was disrupted by a group of so-called TERFs -- trans-exclusionary radical feminists.
The London Pride parade this past weekend was disrupted by a group of so-called TERFs -- trans-exclusionary radical feminists.
NIKLAS HALLE'N/AFP via Getty Images

London Pride, like Pride celebrations all over the world, is supposed to be about the LGBTQ community coming together to celebrate the ability to be themselves and to openly proclaim who they love. But this weekend the message ended up hijacked by a small group of self-proclaimed lesbian “feminists” who jumped out in front of the parade displaying anti-transgender banners and posters and handing out fliers with transphobic propaganda.

They were booed by the crowd. But because they were in front of the official start of the parade, police did nothing and the group was allowed to walk the entire route. Afterward, London Pride condemned them and their message, saying: “The protest group showed a level of bigotry, ignorance and hate that is unacceptable. We reject what this group stands for. They do not share our values, which are about inclusion and respect and support for the most marginalised parts of our community.”

The people responsible come from a movement whose members sometimes call themselves gender critical feminists, or radical feminists. Most people know them as trans-exclusionary radical feminists, or TERFs.

The problem with having the word “feminist” in any of these descriptors is that these individuals and groups are not feminist by any normal definition. Even if you leave aside their positions on transgender people and look at their positions on women’s issues in general, they are extremely retrograde. And while TERFs might have started out as a tiny group of fading second-wave feminists who never quite got over the fact that women can be both heterosexual and feminist, the movement is now essentially a bought-and-paid-for tool of ultra-conservative religious groups in the U.S. opposed to everything that feminism normally stands for.

TERF thought leaders who are widely accepted as representatives of their movement have taken horrifying positions on issues such as rape and bodily autonomy. Germaine Greer, author of The Female Eunuch, was recently brought on a much-publicized panel debate on TV in the U.K. as an opponent of transgender rights. She has also made chilling statements about rape.

Greer has said that rape isn’t that bad, describing it as “something that leaves no sign, no injury, nothing.” In the same interview, she said the penalty for rape should be reduced to “200 hours of community service.” Greer pooh-poohed the Me Too movement, saying, “If you spread your legs because he said ‘Be nice to me and I’ll give you a job in a movie,’ then I’m afraid that’s tantamount to consent, and it’s too late now to start whingeing about that.”

“The movement is now essentially a bought-and-paid-for tool of ultra-conservative religious groups in the U.S.”

Similarly, Venice Allan, aka @DrRadFem on Twitter, has railed against abortion and birth control being available to women, proclaiming, “Ah... a man arrives to tell us that the only decent feminism we should campaign about is to make careless sex easier for him.” Allan was previously part of the Labour Party’s Women’s Network. After confronting a trans woman at an event by the organization, she was unrepentant for her actions, and subsequently posted anti-transgender memes. As a result, her membership in the Labour Party was suspended.

This sentiment that birth control is just a way of enabling consequence-free sex echoes the position of U.S. conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, who popularized the term “feminazi” to describe feminists. In 2012 Limbaugh infamously took the position that women who use birth control are “sluts.”

If it seems like these individuals are drawing from the right-wing playbook and its messaging, it is because they are. There is in fact a very good reason why the anti-transgender messaging in the pamphlets being handed out by the protesters at London Pride was virtually indistinguishable from the anti-transgender messaging in right-wing publications like The Federalist.

There is a deliberate strategy to co-opt or displace mainstream feminists in order to divide, conquer and destroy the LGBTQ community. Meg Kilgannon described it at the Family Research Council’s Values Voters summit in 2017:

For all of its recent success, the LGBT alliance is actually fragile, and the trans activists need the gay rights movement to help legitimize them. Gender identity on its own is just a bridge too far. If you separate the T from the alphabet soup, we’ll have more success.

Her solution: Wrap transphobic rhetoric in the language of secular feminism, claiming that gender identity is a concept offensive to women.

This isn’t an idle threat. There is ample evidence that it is being put into action. The Heritage Foundation hosted a panel last year consisting of a mix of “old-school” TERFs and new, religiously motivated ones (such as Kaley Triller Haver) who downplayed the role of religion in their hostility toward trans people.

Another panelist at that event was Mary Lou Singleton, a member of the Women’s Liberation Front. That group received a $15,000 grant from the Alliance Defending Freedom ― an anti-LGBTQ, anti-abortion, anti-birth control legal organization that supports the recriminalization of homosexuality in the U.S. The grant money was used to fund lawsuits against transgender-inclusive laws and policies. Meanwhile, the far-right news site Breitbart has given headline coverage to help Transgender Trend ― another U.K. group ― raise money through Crowdfunder to spread anti-transgender propaganda in U.K. schools.

These right-wing organizations don’t try to hide their relationship with so-called feminists. Indeed, they proudly display it in order to create the illusion that both the left and the right oppose inclusion of trans people in society. In reality, only one side’s interests are being represented here ― the radical religious right.

Real feminists, lesbians, queers and bisexual woman should ask what sort of woman or feminist would align themselves with these right-wing organizations. They are all anti-choice. They all want to ban access to birth control. They universally want to overturn Lawrence v. Texas and allow states to make homosexuality illegal again. They want to overturn Obergefell v. Hodges, and Roe v. Wade. They want to ban same-sex adoption. They all are hostile to fair-pay-for-women laws. They oppose women working outside the home. They are all hostile to the Women’s March and Me Too. They are fake medical organizations and anti-LGBTQ and anti-choice hate groups. They have cheered the assassinations of abortion providers. They are publications that have published horrible things about women, such as “Does Feminism Make Women Ugly?

This isn’t a choice between transgender people and women. This is a choice between trans people and right-wing organizations pretending to represent women. And you are deluding yourself if you think these right-wing organizations will not be coming for queers and cisgender women next. They have said that’s exactly what they plan on doing.

The religious right has been explicit in laying out its plans to divide and conquer the LGBTQ community.

They have been explicit that they are co-opting feminism and using TERFs and anti-transgender “feminist” organizations as a fifth column to attack trans people.

This is why, when Venice Allan and others tried to take the anti-transgender movement on the road to Ireland earlier this year with a series of events, Irish feminist organizations rejected their efforts to infiltrate their movement in an open letter from 11 LGBTQ and women’s organizations. Where, the Irish organizations asked, were these U.K. “feminists” when they were fighting for the right to choose? Where were these “feminists” when their sisters in Ireland took to the streets for a demonstration in support of abortion rights on March 8, 2018?

We do not need you here. We have not had your support in our fight for #repealthe8th, our fight against the historical and ongoing impact of the Magdalene Laundries, our fight for taking back control of our hospitals from religious orders, our fight for justice for women and babies tortured and entombed in Mother and Baby homes...

We neither want nor need your lecture tour. You’re not welcome here.

Whether they knew it or not, the protesters in London this weekend were advancing the agenda of the religious right in the U.S. Real Irish feminists on the front lines of women’s rights in Europe haven’t taken the bait. Neither should you.

Brynn Tannehill is the author of the forthcoming Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Trans (But Were Afraid to Ask).

CORRECTION: This piece incorrectly stated that the term ‘TERF’ was coined by a group of radical feminists to describe themselves. It is credited to two feminist writers who do not describe themselves as TERFs.

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