TERF (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist) is a widely-used and important label. It’s an attempt to properly name a subset of bigoted people who conceal their hate-filled actions beneath a guise of feminism. Identifying TERFism isn’t about name-calling, but about exposing and dismantling anti-trans behavior that ultimately serves white supremacy.
The problem: TERF is not entirely accurate.
The first half – Trans Exclusionary – is fine. They push to ban trans women from sports and rape crisis centers. They were the first to employ threats and physical violence against trans women to prevent them from organizing. They do this even when trans inclusive women outnumber them, such as at Michfest, where surveys found the majority of women in the early 90’s welcomed trans women. “Trans Exclusionary” aptly identifies what the monsters are about.
The problem is with the second half: “Radical Feminists.” They aren’t radicals and they aren’t feminists.
A radical is someone who seeks change– someone who imagines and pursues transformative futures. They stand in direct opposition to those who seek to preserve or reinstitute the old order. When used positively, radical progressivism works to tear down injustice and replace it with more equitable ways of living. Radical progressives are imaginative in the futures they seek and the tactics they use, fighting back through any available means– including education, community organizing, or direct action.
We sometimes refer to the alt-right as the “radical right,” an example of radicalism with evil ends. Some of them like to pretend they are future-oriented, working toward some horrendous whites-only destiny. But everything they push is from the past. They want to bring back segregated classrooms and the criminalization of sexuality. They want to burn queer books as the Nazis did. What little future they pursue is grounded in regressive policies and power dynamics.
What definition of woman do TERFs love to give? “Adult human female.” Where does this originate? From a conservative group, the Heritage Foundation. It’s a view of women that reduces them to objects defined by genitals alone — instead of a complex intersection of biology, society, psychology, personal preferences, and identification. It ignores contemporary cultural and scientific understandings and calls back to a time when women were viewed as fainting hysterics (a disease once presumedly caused by a “wandering womb”). This definition favors current — and past– power structures that exclusively benefit cis white straight men.
When Posie Parker erected anti-tranbs billboards in England, she did so with money from American Evangelicals and the Heritage Foundation. TERFs are not radical because they are instruments of conservatism– of a political movement that seeks to preserve existing structures of inequity. They push a doctrine meant to discard what we know now in favor of mistakes we made in our past. They are Regressive.
Feminists love and bolster women, but those we call TERFs campaign for policies and actions that directly harm women. Not just trans women, but any woman who dares speak in their favor. Starting with feminism’s second wave, they appropriated lesbian identity and used it as sheep’s clothing. Infiltrating as faux queers, they fomented division and mistrust. They also brought a narcissism that left them unable to think beyond their white privilege, alienating women of color. Their hatred sabotaged feminism for decades.
Now for the “F” in TERF. Since 2016, fascism has steadily spread into the mainstream. The cry for Trump to become a dictator, ushering in a tidal wave of racism and dangerous “America First” nationalism, has grown louder. Trump has even admitted that he’d want to forcibly subjugate all critics and political opponents if he comes back into office. He is not the only one, with De Santis, Abbott, and other Republican governors revealing that they, too, desire dictatorial power.
TERFs are an explicit part of this fascist effort. Their role is to “divide and conquer” the LGBTQ community so that all our gains can be undone. Trump’s supporters have admitted that helping transphobic women drive a wedge between the LGB and the T will make it easier for them to roll back anti-discrimination protections for all queers, BIPOC, and women. We saw this tactic’s success with the overturning of Roe v Wade, delivering a major blow to reproductive freedom. SCOTUS has already made clear they intend to undo gay marriage and contraceptives next.
The goal of TERFs is not the realization of feminist ideals, but to hide among women and say whatever is needed to keep us from fighting the common enemy: fascism. The true face of any TERF is a goose-stepping thug with delusions of grandeur. They support fascism because that is what they are: Fascists.
And this gives us a great new update to TERF: Trans Exclusionary Regressive Fascist. Same acronym, but a far clearer meaning! Direct action against TERF’s becomes properly classified as anti-fascist action, not sex-based action, as they would claim. And this works for SWERFs (sex worker exclusive “radical feminists”), too!
This renaming would better signal the ongoing solidarity that trans and queer communities have with others who punch Nazis. The year 2024 is primed for more of Hitler’s fanclub to emerge from the woodwork. When combatting TERFs, the wolves who try to hide in our midst, we would do well to remember our roots in collective outrage— and throwing bricks.