“TERF” is a Misnomer, but it’s Not a Slur

Regardless of your damage, you can afford empathy.

What I wanted to write was a funny vignette about cloaked figures standing ominously in forests. But no. No. We can’t have fun here. We have to talk about TERFs. So, for those of you who were not here for JK Rowling and the Gynaecology of Bigotry or whatever that episode was, TERF stands for “Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists.” Oh, but don’t call them that. Because these women who insist that TERF is a slur will also insist on calling trans people “it.” You cannot make it make sense because there is no sense to it.

Before I get too far into this I will disclose my own damage because damage happens to be central to literally all of this. Before I had understood what all this was, what bothered me was the insistence on gender or sex binary and … I guess I have to explain that, but just put a pin in it for now. We’ll get to it. I do totally understand the whole fear that societal derision of all things feminine not only elevates women with supposedly masculine characteristics but also makes girls and young women attempt to eschew their femininity. We’ve all heard of the “pick me” girl. I also understand that trans women did not — mostly … sort of …depending on a lot of factors — have to endure a childhood and often adolescence of being objectified and derided for their apparent female gender or female presentation. And like most women … #MeToo. It also did initially annoy me a bit that over half the world population seemingly had to wait in line until something like 1–2% of the population received explicit human rights.

So yeah, I understand intimately where TERFs get off … but in this case ally-ship is a far better means of dismantling the patriarchy than bigotry … and yes, TERFs are bigots … and all the things that I can sort of sympathize with above I can also dismantle. So let’s do that. And then some.

I’m not a microbiologist so I don’t know what this represents. Supposedly it’s DNA, but it looks more like either sequence copying or RNA producing a protein so … anyways, it’s purty. (Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash)

In regards to that pin about gender and sex, this is complicated but no, there is not a gender binary and there is not even really a sex binary. If you think genitals determine sex then what about individuals with congenital genital abnormalities? Does the presence or absence of a penis confer or delete maleness? Does the presence of a full or part of a vagina but no uterus mean a child is not female?

Maybe you think chromosomes determine sex. Cool. Except what about XY gonadal dysgenesis? What about XX males? What about Turner and Klinefelter syndromes? Do they not have a sex because of the chromosomal abnormality? Is a person less female or less male if you somehow find out that despite them having all the right external genitalia their chromosomes don’t match? Do people with disabilities have gender? Am I as an autistic woman genderless as a result of having a neurological arrangement socially perceived as being more masculine despite the fact that it is not?

And then on top of that just skeletally and presumably morphologically in other ways you have some populations that are super dimorphic and others that aren’t. For example my mom was Danish and my father is Hungarian. Danes tend to have a very low degree of sexual dimorphism whereas for Hungarians female and male skeletons are pretty easy to distinguish. So does that mean that Hungarians are more male or more female than Danes? Or maybe, just maybe it’s a meaningless biological spectrum. But if you disagree, since I’m half and half do let me know whether or not I and my Danish mother fit your definition of woman. I definitely care about your opinion.

Next issue: deriding all things feminine and elevating all things masculine. Yes. This is a problem in our society. It is not the fault of trans people and newsflash, trans people were raised in this same destructive society as well. It is super annoying that while the average height for American women is 5'4" the average model is at least 5'9". But that’s not trans people’s fault and honestly while I myself am exactly 5'4 my mom was 5'11", my grandmother was 6'0" and my great-grandmother was taller still. Actual women with supermodel heights do naturally exist. But … even if they didn’t this whole idea is just more reason to celebrate and protect trans women and men. If society derides all things feminine then trans men are going to be at a bit of a disadvantage because they probably will never make up that height disparity and trans women chose to be women. How could choosing to be a woman be wrong or threatening when your argument is that all things feminine are bad?

Lastly though while there is gender discrimination at a very implicit and embodied level, from what I understand it’s much worse to be neither. A lot of trans people live in absolute fear of being either “dead-named” or “clocked.” Contrary to the argument that they’re wearing women as a campy costume a lot of the hyperfeminine traits trans women take on are taken on to allieviate their fear of not “passing.” And while women are in constant danger of attack because … we’re women and white supremacy requires the blood of women and BIPOC, trans people — men, women, and nonbinary — are as well. For them the danger may go well further than it would for a “bio girl.”

Sort of subsequent issue: legacy sexism. I will always side eye white gay men when they tell me how shocked they were to find out that lesbians ever have a bad time or some such like that because it’s just so myopic. I’ve had gay men who were my actual friends spew some really hateful misogyny at me and it is really deeply hurtful that someone who has undergone discrimination under the patriarchy refuses to acknowledge another victim.

But I gotta say, if this were an analogy — it’s not, but if it were — TERFs would by the myopic, misogynist, man. As I said before, trans people undergo a pretty remarkable amount of hate and bigotry for not gender conforming. And yes, there is also an obscene and dangerous amount of misogyny in this world. When a trans woman “decides,” if that’s even part of the process, that she’s a woman she is going in knowing what that will likely mean for her future. So if she presented as a boy or man in the before-times, that is going to be a huge shift. But probably she dealt with her own weird mix of discrimination from not presenting properly as a boy and … this isn’t a goddamn misery contest. Also, trans men aren’t transitioning to escape sexism. If you think that works, I have a bridge to sell you. It connects San Francisco to Marin County.

And another thing: the idea of civil rights rarity. Part of TERFdom implies that if trans people are protected or get rights then somehow women won’t. Or women’s rights will be temporally suspended? I’m not really sure what this is except a complete misconception of how civil rights works. In the United States we STILL have not passed the Equal Rights Amendment and I’m not even sure that we still can. But that does not preclude a fight for trans rights nor does fighting for trans rights preclude fighting for women’s rights. We can do two things at once. We’re women, remember?

I mean, this idea of scarcity for non-white non-male groups came up with Clinton vs Obama in the 2008 primary. As if by electing Obama we could never have a woman President or if we had elected Clinton we could never have a Black President. We resolved it by electing Clinton in 2016 (and then not seating her because yes, sexism is very real and has handknit mittens). And yes, I realize we still haven’t had a woman as President, but a woman President is increasingly likely because at this very moment Kamala Harris is VP. Is she less Black ’cause she’s also Asian or less female ’cause she’s … actually, let’s not open that can of worms. I am aware of far too many racist tropes regarding Black women to try to ask that question even in good faith.

But this idea of a type of femininity being the only which may be protected or even acknowledged by society is not something TERFs came up with all on their lonesome. I mentioned misogynoir just above, but a huge component of white supremacy is dismantling the femininity of women who are sexually unavailable to or supposedly inappropriate for white men. Anyone who’s had a gander at Beyonce or Nyakim Gatwech knows that the idea that Black women are somehow lacking in femininity is utterly bunk. But it’s a persistent one because white supremacists gonna white supremacist.

Explain to me what part of her is not just totally femme. Also there is no color filter on her. This is why she’s a model. She’s just naturally that drop dead gorgeous. (naijapals.com)

For white supremacists the only way a woman of colour is acceptable as a woman is if she is a temptress. This allows white men lust after Black women and to even exercise violence including sexual violence on Black women without actually taking any responsibility for it. And it’s exactly this sort of white supremacist patriarchal narrative that underscores a lot of the TERFy narrative on trans people. And just as it has lead to some really horrifying patterns of violence against BIPOC women similar patterns are emerging for the victimization of trans people. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that TERFs tend to be white women.

Ironically, one of the big issues that usually brings this up is this absurd fear that trans people using a bathroom is dangerous to cis-gender people particularly women and girls. I just … like … Okay so … I dunno what YOU do in the bathroom, but I close the stall and pee. Then I wash my hands. One time in high school a guy tried to get me to suck his dick for money (or drugs — he wasn’t really clear) but the reason that was a problem beyond the glaringly obvious was 1. I don’t do that 2. ew and 3. I really just wanted to get my homework finished before my singing performance. But also, that didn’t happen so much in the girl’s bathroom as the publicity office. And he was a cisgender adolescent boy. Women and girls do have to deal with some epic bs, but keeping trans people from peeing will in no way safeguard naïve 14-year-olds from super creepy entitled peers. Genuinely, if you can explain to me how a transgender ban could have kept Creeper McCreepenstan from forcing me to leave the office and go to the library that afternoon I would love to hear it. A man who wants to harass, intimidate, or attack women is not going to be enabled or stymied by enforcing or not enforcing a bathroom ban. And … I accept that some trans women are lesbians or pansexual, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t go through all the agony of transitioning so they could more easily stalk women. It’s already super easy to commit and get away with aggravated rape as a man. And men do it because of misogyny. Rape and sexual violence is about power; not sex. They’re not going to turn themselves into what they hate for the absurdist notion that it will make sexual assault easier.

But of late the big thing has been Title IX. Title IX prevents gender based discrimination. In theory. And also discrimination based on blindness. Due to the nature of our educational system it really only means that schools have to nominally have the same sport opportunities for girls as they do for boys. There are still major issues, but it at least made it so women’s locker rooms became an actual thing. So … recently Biden issued an Executive Order to expand the interpretation of Title IX to include LGBTQ protections. I’d insert the youtube clip of Verdi’s Dies Irae, but that joke’s kinda played out.

Firstly, from a constitutional perspective, Biden’s entirely in the right for doing that. That is a textbook example of how an EO is meant to work. As President, he looked at the laws, made a decision on how he was going to interpret them and then issued a statement to that effect. Perfect execution. Ten out of ten.

Secondly though … there’s not any valid argument against it. Title IX prevents gender based discrimination. So that should probably include all genders. But just for funsies I will dismantle the invalid TERFtastic argument which does exist.

This is actually why I’m up at 5am scribbling despite likely having to wait to publish until tomorrow. One of my now very ex-Facebook friends posted a meme which I will not link or copy-paste for the same reason I don’t say the n-word. Well, probably the n-word is actually slightly worse. But, it was naked bigotry and I’m not going to spread that filth. I will describe it though.

You know what they say about a girl with big hands … big gloves. (Photo by Julian Steenbergen on Unsplash)

It was a drawing of a caricature of a person of androgynous gender meant to depict a trans woman. The drawing included on this androgynous individual relatively accurate breasts, a thick torso, hairy arms, stubble, a masculine jaw and forehead, shoulder length wavy hair, pearl earrings, lipstick, and a thick neck, biceps and triceps. Oh yes. And of course, big hands. Because how can we ever forget big hands. The caricature is in the process of throwing a javelin and the text reads, “Calling all mediocre males: Women’s Medals, Records, Scholarships, Sponsorships ARE NOW UP FOR GRABS! Live your dream by ruining theirs. Call the ACLU NOW to find out how YOU can get in on the action!”

There is this rather corrupt believe among TERFs that trans people doing sports necessarily means women can’t compete. Which makes zero sense for multiple reasons. There’s other issues with the meme that I will get to, but over and over again the big idea is that trans women are still biologically male and therefore better at all sports than women. And I’m sorry, but both those suppositions are false. Trans men are men, trans women are women, and non-binary people are people. Even if we assume that they retain traits meaningful to some sports like height, flexibility, stamina, or muscle mass in a given part of their body this isn’t going to translate to better athletic performance across the board. How many trans women have you seen take home the gold in rhythmic gymnastics?

In fact gymnastics, weight lifting, shotput, javelin, and discuss are the areas in which men probably do have an actual biological advantage. Cool beans. But gymnastics for women is very different, meaning if an athlete was a gymnast, transitioned and wanted to compete they would either have to compete as their “birth gender” or hurry up and learn a whole new host of events. The other sports you can compete as either a male or female athlete and often they give female athletes less hefty things to throw, but that “hormonal advantage,” only lasts so long and is likely to be accompanied by a number of physical side effects that likely impact performance.

But what really pisses me off personally about this narrative is that it insists that women are just weak and need special allotments so that they can hope to ever compete, but shall never hold a candle to the menfolk. This is, once again, absolute bunk. Women probably won’t surpass men in the discuss toss, but once women’s sports are taken seriously women absolutely will dominate in long distance running and swimming as well as various martial arts possibly including wrestling and judo, and anything which requires a lot of dexterity and flexibility. When women compete in mixed gender competitions their performance improves and women have proven to be better at some sports.

But even if women actually were the weak pathetic flowers that patriarchy and TERFism seems insistent on making us out to be, where would this leave trans people? Can trans men still compete with women or are they out too? Can trans women compete at all? And where on earth do the non-binaries go? If women are super weak and saaaaad but our right to engage in competitive athletics is protected then why shouldn’t trans’ rights to compete also be protected? Personally, I’m a bit offended at the implication that I can’t handle the competition.

The reason I keep on harping on the connection between TERFdome and white supremacy is that it’s just so complete. John Oliver did a whole episode on how the biggest women exclusive scholarship was Miss America and the only way for a woman to get that scholarship was to win beauty pageants. Additionally, Maria Sharapova is kinda infamous for her simultaneous (relative) mediocrity in the tennis world and her bucket load of sponsorships. She’s not getting those because she’s the best female tennis player; she’s getting them because she’s a hot femme blonde. Marion Bartoli who won women’s singles at Wimbledon in 2013 as trolled and dragged online for not being what the trolls deemed sufficiently beautiful. Some trolls even suggested that she did not deserve to win because they didn’t find her attractive and — unsurprisingly to many a trans woman — derided her as “manish.”

Pictured: Hour 1 of my typical pre-exam prep. (Photo by Chalo Garcia on Unsplash)

The problem here isn’t with “men invading women’s spaces” as TERFs would have you believe. These spaces do not exist in the first place. We’re having a misery contest over a prize that is not extant and when it is, is literally and overtly distributed on the basis of a white man’s arbitrary judgement of our f*ckability. Even if trans people were somehow magical creatures inherently better at athletics than everyone else particularly us sad weak womenfolk the “scholarships” don’t exist, the “sponsorships” require you to be a hot blonde, the careers are based largely on luck, and the only reason we’re even talking about this in the first place is because white supremacy has created an inherently unfair system which arbitrarily discriminates against non-white people with non-male gendered bodies and then pits everyone who is not white and male against one another. The scarcity of opportunity is artificial. Our enemy here is not trans people but white men who fear both female and BIPOC excellence and the possibility of losing their status.

This is particularly notable for white women who tend to reap the majority of benefits under Affirmative Action. White women do face discrimination and I can definitely point to times in my life where I have been endangered, negatively impacted, or lost out on opportunities not because I wasn’t excellent but because I am a woman. But since we ARE engaged in a misery contest here the amount of discrimination faced by white women as opposed to BIPOC and especially BIWOC is disproportionate to the amount of support and aid we receive. I’m not saying that white women shouldn’t be supported or that white women who have benefitted from programs like Affirmative Action are bad, but these programs do not do enough to alleviate systemic injustices. Laws like Title IX and AA are pretty strictly non-discriminatory. They try to correct injustices which already exist and make it illegal to deny opportunities on the basis of race or gender. But they do not create those opportunities.

Ultimately, my issue with Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists is that as much as they hate being called TERFs and as much as they think they’re successfully gilding a turd by calling themselves “gender critical,” I actually do agree that “TERF” is not the right term for them. It’s not a slur as they would claim, but these women are not on our side. TERFs are NOT feminists. And I will argue this for so-called “white feminists,” as well. When you are practicing a brand of “feminism,” that seeks to limit femininity or the feminine experience, then you are not actually practicing feminism, but a form of white supremacy which is more or less interchangeable with patriarchy. So, the opposite of feminism. My mother was quite good at sports. She often played with boys and could often beat them. When I am in a good lifting routine I can often outlift a lot of men. So if you are excluding trans women from the definition of women because you think they’re athletic or strong then firstly, you’re saying that women are weak and a bit spastic but secondly it does sound like your definition would also exclude my mom and me from the tent of femininity.

With this kind of attitude, you really have to ask yourself where on earth this bigotry is coming from and I have to credit ContraPoints with this observation, but she pointed out in her video on JK Rowling that this bigotry that TERFs engage in stems not from an actual threat or loss or endangerment or even the idea of waiting for the Godot that is civil rights, but from backlash. Trans people are going through it still, but we are increasingly seeing some positive advances in their representation and treatment. It’s still really easy to be disowned or fired or arrested or be the victim of violence if you happen to be trans, but ever so slowly people are waking up to the idea that that’s really not terribly fair. TERFdom is not about some heroic fight against men doing what men always do … it’s sadly much simpler than that. TERFs are just mad about someone they cannot empathize with being treated with empathy.

Doctor of Palaeopathology, rage-prone optimist, stealth berserker, opera enthusiast, and insatiable consumer of academic journals.

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