What is a TERF? Debate over transgender rights and Gender Recognition Act explained

Google searches for the term “TERF” in the UK are at an all-time high, and are only projected to increase. A look at Google Trends shows that most of the queries relate to understanding whether a certain celebrity is considered a TERF and, most importantly, what exactly the term means.

TERF is an acronym that stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist. TERFs believe in a radical feminism that narrows down the definition of a woman to their birth sex. In doing so, TERFs negate transgender individuals’ legitimacy in their self-identification and, specifically, deny trans women access to women-only spaces.

Among the arguments expressed in TERF spaces, there is belief that trans women can never be fully considered women because of the male privilege experienced from birth—an argument that actor Laverne Cox elegantly put to bed last year—and that they represent a threat to cisgender women because of the male genitalia with which they were born.

TERF arguments generally give so-called “biology” precedence over “gender,” which is rejected as a social construct. But they fail to recognise that the understanding of how gender identities and biology intertwine is still being explored and new research suggests that gender identity is wired in the mind. A recent study, titled “Brain structure and function in gender dysphoria,” found that transgender people’s brains are wired similarly to those of their “experienced gender rather than birth sex.”

The beliefs denoted by the acronym “TERF” have long been part of both the feminist and gay rights movements for decades, as The New Yorker noted in 2014. It was only that year that the term began appearing in the mainstream—around the time Time magazine chose Cox as the first transgender person to grace its cover.

Most people labeled TERFs by trans activists reject the label and prefer defining themselves as “gender-critical,” or “radical feminists.” Both terms conveniently conceal the exclusionary elements of their beliefs, which propose to deny basic human rights.

Is TERF a slur?

One of the debates surrounding the term TERF focuses on whether the term is an offensive slur on par with homophobic and racist insults—which aim to stigmatise people on the basis of who they are and how they look—rather than a description of a set of beliefs, such as “racism.”

‘Repeat after us: Trans Women are Women’ was projected onto the side of the Ministry of Justice (Courtesy Dazed)

It’s hard to disagree with the claim that TERF has assumed a negative connotation, but this has to do more with the nature of the beliefs defined by the word, than the word itself. Another question is whether the term is necessary to describe and challenge transphobic views? While all trans-exclusionary feminists are transphobic by definition, not all transphobia is perpetrated by TERFs.

The Economist, which recently published a 10-part series of essays on transgender identities, sided with those recognising TERF as a slur, banning it from its articles because the word “may have started as a descriptive term but is now used to try to silence a vast swathe of opinions on trans issues, and sometimes to incite violence against women.”

What about violence against women?

Citing “violence against women” is a common trope used by those who want to cast a sinister light on the trans rights movement. One such example is the petition against the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) exhibition of protest symbols used by the Northern California Degenderettes group, which describes itself on Facebook as “a friendly international feminist & genderqueer agitprop club.”

The event featured blood-soaked tank tops reading, “I punch TERFs” and “Your apathy is killing us,” and baseball bats painted in the colour of various LGBT+ flags, which were originally created following the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting and inspired by Beyoncé’s “Hold Up” video.

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