Gender Trouble: Will The UK’s TERF Problem Invade The US?

by | Aug 8, 2018 | QUEER RVA

For trans activists in the UK, anti-trans feminists have become the biggest stumbling block in their civil rights struggle. Is the US headed for a similar fate?

Here in the United States, we generally think of anti-trans hatred as the province of the right wing. From Donald Trump’s ongoing attempts to unilaterally ban transgender military troops to the Department of Education’s newfound hostility toward transgender students, it seems like the Republican party has the market cornered on anti-trans hate. But if you look beyond our borders to the United Kingdom, the struggle for trans rights faces a very different sort of enemy, one surprisingly centered in the feminist community.

Feminist opposition to the growing visibility and acceptance of transgender people is seemingly everywhere in the UK; prominent journalists like Sarah Ditum and Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman regularly publish articles attacking not only any attempts at civil rights gains by UK trans activists, but the very principle of trans people’s gender identity. 2018′s London Pride march was blocked by a group of anti-trans lesbian activists carrying a banner that read “Transactivism erases lesbians.”

A group protesting reformation of the UK’s Gender Recognition Act, which would make it easier for trans people to legally change their gender markers, even hosted a speaker at a June 2018 meeting who accused trans women undergoing hormonal replacement therapy of turning fish trans. PinkNews quoted the speaker as saying, “We’re peeing a lot of oestrogen, synthetic oestogren into the water and that’s forcibly ‘trans-ing’ the fish, and that means that crocodiles and alligators are in danger. It means fresh water fish are in danger. It means we’re destroying the world partially because of the trans ideology.”

British journalist Shon Faye, a transgender writer, comedian, and filmmaker, sees the more hostile climate toward trans issues among UK feminists as originating with prominent UK feminists who’ve expressed anti-trans views throughout their careers, including Germaine Greer and Julie Burchill. “My perception of the difference is that in the US, overt transphobia politically belongs to the right wing, and here it doesn’t,” Faye told Them in a recent interview about the more transphobic climate in the UK. “Influential feminist voices have been very antagonistic to trans rights. They have created a culture where the threshold for transphobia is quite low for how unacceptable you can be, for how grossly transphobic you can be, and it’s still often being claimed in the realm of the left wing.”

Indeed, Sarah Ditum, one of the most prominent anti-trans feminists in the UK, published an article in the Economist last month trumpeting the fact that, unlike the US, “transgender issues are not yet a schism between conservatives and liberals in Britain.” She goes on to hope that UK political discussion around trans rights will include the voices of those who wish to make it harder for trans people to transition legally; as well as those who, like the London Pride protesters, believe that the rise of trans visibility somehow makes cisgender lesbians invisible.

Ditum argues in the Economist piece that “British politics — if it resists the toxic terms of debate exported from America — has the chance to conduct a serious discussion about trans rights and inclusion.” The references to “debate” and “discussion” are instructive; British television networks have made hay recently with a variety of Crossfire-like debate shows that center around transgender identity.

Channel 4’s Genderquake debate

In May, Channel 4′s Genderquake, a series promoted as a chance “to encourage and to enlighten public discussion about sexuality and gender identity,” hosted a high-profile debate pitting transgender celebrities Munroe Bergdorf and Caitlyn Jenner against the high priestesses of UK anti-trans activism, Germaine Greer, and Ditum herself. Genderqueer activist Amrou Al-Khadi, who had been asked to participate in the debate and chose not to, described the ensuing scene in an article for The Independent published the morning after the episode aired. “This resulted in an environment where audience members felt able to shout ‘You are a man!’ and ‘You have a penis!’ to last night’s transgender women panellists,” they wrote. “To debate any gender identity implies that not only can it be explained, but that it can be refuted.”

Shon Faye sees this tendency to assume authority over others’ lives as a colonialist instinct remaining from the glory days of the British empire. “The pernicious thing for marginalized people in Britain has always been that in Britain, discrimination is always beneath the surface, and always dressed up in very polite and genteel language,” she told Them. “It’s because of the empire, because of this idea that the posh people at the top of British society get to take a magnifying glass to their subjects and examine them, and a big part of that is debate.”

However, the sides of the debates are not truly equal — and Faye believes the producers in charge don’t want them to be. “Throughout history, marginalized people don’t have the same ability to get up and debate,” she said. “British TV is obsessed with debate, but of course it’s TV, so it’s about entertainment and what they are interested in is conflict. They may pretend it’s a fair debate and you should just be able to make your points, but they just actually want a massive clash and they don’t think about the mental health toll.”

Anti-trans forces in the UK are also using the media high ground they’ve been afforded to close down some debates before they even get going. Most prominently, the ubiquitous Sarah Ditum has spearheaded a campaign to have the acronym “TERF,” which stands for “trans-exclusionary radical feminist,” branded a slur. In an article for The New Statesman entitled “What is a Terf? How an internet buzzword became a mainstream slur,” Ditum discusses conflict between trans people and anti-trans activists in slanted terms that use the same sort of overheated “free speech under attack” rhetoric that is commonly heard in the US from white nationalists.

On Genderquake, Ditum argued that reforming the Gender Recognition Act would pave the way for men to attack cis women in bathrooms — the same sort of anti-trans propaganda we heard not too long ago from former VA Delegate Bob Marshall when he introduced his (thankfully defeated) “bathroom bill” in the 2017 General Assembly session.

Ditum’s main concern in the New Statesman article is to “prove” that TERF is a slur. And while Faye tells Them she doesn’t believe the term is the best way to describe anti-trans activists in the first place — “There are the hardcore radical feminists, but mostly it’ll be middle class white women who’ve spent a lot of time on parenting forums and decided that trans people are an issue and this is the one issue that they care about,” she says — it has become a popular shorthand term for people who oppose trans rights from a feminist perspective.

Anti-trans activists at London Pride; photo via Medium

Sadly, this is playing right into anti-trans crusaders’ hands, especially in our modern social-media-driven world. The idea that “TERF is a slur” was converted into a twitter hashtag years ago, and it’s developed a great deal of momentum that way. It seems someone on staff at twitter has been listening, too, as Teen Vogue contributor Danielle Corcione recently had their twitter account permanently suspended over a tweet reading “If any TERFs like or retweet this, I’m shoving my foot up your ass.”

Of course, the “permanent suspension” lasted less than a week once Corcione started protesting the decision, but as Jezebel’s Frida Garza wrote at the time, “Twitter’s decision to permanently suspend Corcione’s account raises a bigger question about what kind of speech is protected on social media platforms, and which groups of people are considered worthy of protection from threats.”

This incident mirrors a similar response from twitter against RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant Aja, who, according to GayStarNews, responded to a tweet saying their gender “wasn’t real” by calling the sender a TERF, a “bitter fake ass feminist,” and a “senseless cow.” Aja was banned from twitter (though only for a day); the person who called Aja’s gender fictitious was not.

The potential mainstreaming of anti-trans feminist ideology within the US has moved beyond social media as well; the IRS recently recognized an organization calling itself the “Pussy Church Of Modern Witchcraft” as a tax-exempt religious organization. The group’s website explicitly identifies it as an anti-trans organization; on its About page, it states, “The Pussy Church serves Women and Girls only. Males are not permitted to participate, regardless of how they identify. We expressly reject the concepts of gender identity, transgenderism, and gender as being meaningful to defining what a Woman or Girl is.”

Of course, in Trump’s America, the decision to become a church might be the smartest one any activist group opposing the rights of marginalized identities could possibly make. Last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions formed a “Religious Liberty Task Force” under the auspices of the Justice Department; as MediaMatters pointed out, Alliance Defending Freedom — who have been named an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center — were heavily involved in the creation of this task force. As with many other Trump Administration projects carried out in the name of “religious liberty,” this one seems to have the erosion of LGBTQ rights as its primary goal.

Leeds (UK) Pride participants show support for trans people. Photo via Leeds Anti-Fascist Network/Twitter

And here, it comes full circle: those who oppose trans rights from a feminist perspective and those who oppose them from a repressive, authoritarian perspective are now on the same side. It makes sense, because ultimately their goals are the same: policing women’s presence and appearance in the world. “It’s obviously the way the patriarchy works for women,” Faye told Them. “All women police each other’s gender. It’s the same thing as an older woman who tells a younger woman that she’s dressed like a slut, or telling fat women who dress extravagantly that what they’re wearing isn’t flattering… trans women are such an easy target for that.”

“Trans women are some of the most victimised by patriarchal injustices, yet are somehow painted as patriarchs by people like Germaine Greer and Sarah Ditum,” writes Al-Kadhi in The Independent. “It’s absurd to fixate on this hypothetical nonsense, instead of the fact that it is transgender people who suffer most at the hands of the patriarchy: over half of young transgender people have attempted suicide in their life, with more than a third of trans people in the UK suffering hate crimes in 2017. Any noble form of feminism should be working to undo these injustices.”

Top Photo by Jamie Tabberer, via GayStarNews/Twitter

Marilyn Drew Necci

Marilyn Drew Necci

Former GayRVA editor-in-chief, RVA Magazine editor for print and web. Anxiety expert, proud trans woman, happily married.



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