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TERF: what it means and where it came from

By Cristan Williams
@cristanwilliams

 

Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERF) are quick to make fact assertions about the term, TERF. According to TERFs, the term is a slur and use of the term makes one a misogynist.  

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Others assert that the term is insulting, hyperbolic, misleading, and ultimately defamatory.

Allen actually calls for more people to recognize radical feminists as a hate group and then pointedly adopts the term Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist (TERF) to refer to them throughout the article. Make no mistake, this is a slur. TERF is not meant to be explanatory, but insulting. These characterizations are hyperbolic, misleading, and ultimately defamatory. They do nothing but escalate the vitriol and fail to advance the conversation in any way.

– Elizabeth Hungerford (2013), TERF attorney and opinion leader

Within feminist and trans discourse, the term refers to a very specific type of person who wraps anti-trans bigotry in the language of feminism. A hallmark of TERF discourse is that it tends to sound a lot like the anti-trans rhetoric coming out of extreme right-wing groups.

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Gender Identity Watch (GIW) is viewed as a hate group by thousands and has a history of working with a known hate group. Keep the above assertion made by GIW in mind as you read the following interview I did with one of the cisgender feminists who are responsible for popularizing TERF as a feminist concept.

Defining TERF: interviewing the feminist who popularized it

Cristan Williams: From what I can see, yours is the earliest use. The term has become fairly common in trans discourse.

TigTog: Lauredhel and I are pretty sure that we started using trans-exclusionary radfem (TERF) activists as a descriptive term in our own chats a while before I used it in that post.

C: TERFs have made some assertions about your lexical contribution to feminist discourse. For instance: “TERF is not meant to be explanatory, but insulting. These characterizations are hyperbolic, misleading, and ultimately defamatory.”

T: It was not meant to be insulting. It was meant to be a deliberately technically neutral description of an activist grouping. I notice that since TERF has gone out into the wild, many people seem to use trans-exclusive rather than  trans-exclusionary or  trans-excluding, and I think that leads to some exploitable ambiguity. It is possible to interpret trans-exclusive as “exclusively talks about trans* issues” (which could quite rightly be considered a slam on the rest of their feminism), while trans-exclusionary is more specific that their exclusion of trans* voices and bodies from being considered women/feminists is the point.

C: I find it interesting that this term originates in the feminist community and was popularized by a cisgender woman. I think the assumption has been that a trans person had coined the term in the last year or so. Was there a specific incident – or a culmination of incidents – that lead you to advocate for the use of this term?

T: We wanted a way to distinguish TERFs from other radfems with whom we engaged who were trans*-positive/neutral, because we had several years of history of engaging productively/substantively with non-TERF radfems, and then suddenly TERF comments/posts seemed to be erupting in RadFem spaces where they threadjacked dozens of discussions, and there was a great deal of general frustration about that. It is possible that one of us picked it or something similar up from an IRC discussion elsewhere and then we both adopted/adapted it for ourselves, perhaps transforming it from some other initialism into an acronym, because we both appreciate the utility of acronyms in simplifying discourse.

C: You seemed to take personal offense over the colonization of the RadFem identity by an anti-trans group. Was this because you identified as a RadFem and/or have friends that were RadFem who were frustrated by a colonization of their feminist identity – that RadFem became synonymous with being anti-trans?

T: Not so much personally offended as pointedly pedantic, although I certainly sympathised with various RadFems I knew who felt that mAndrea and her fellows did not speak for them and were disrupting other discussions with anti-trans* derails. I was still quite actively writing FAQs for the Finally, A Feminism 101 Blog then, so being pedantic about what various strands of feminism were and were not saying was pretty much second nature at the time.

C: Some TERFs have asserted that others do not have a right to make a distinction between TE RadFems (TERFs) and RadFems.

T: The idea that any group can deny others the right to make distinctions between opinions/positions voiced by different members in that group seems utterly absurd. Obviously, nobody can force anybody who voices what others consider TERF stances to self-adopt the TERF label for themselves, but they can always choose another name for their stance which is not held by all other RadFems. After all, RadFem itself is a label chosen by some feminists to distinguish themselves from other feminists, and those feminists felt insulted that what they were doing was not considered sufficiently radical to fall under the RadFem label, see also the womanist/feminist distinction – distinguishing between different arms of activism is what social activist movements do as they grow and develop and react to change within and without.

C: Others assert that the TERF is a slur. How would you respond to such assertions?

T: It was not originally intended as such. Initially the TERF acronym didn’t seem to gain much traction at all, so I never really kept track. Since it’s become in more common usage, no doubt there are some people that use it as a slur. The same thing happened to “radical feminist” and also to “feminist” – any group-identifying word can and will be used as a slur by those who find that group challenging, but that doesn’t mean that the word is fundamentally/always/only a slur.

C: How do you feel about the impact you’ve had in feminist discourse (re: your lexical contribution)?

T: I don’t really know. The acronym was something Lauredhel and I found useful for some of the discussions we were having at the time (and as mentioned above, we aren’t really sure that we invented it as such anyway rather than adopted/adapted it). We thought it might be useful for some others having similar discussions, so we and our co-bloggers shared it around in some of those discussions. That it did eventually catch on and people still find it useful after five years, and that it’s now a label that TERFs feel the need to push back on? It’s certainly intriguing, but I don’t really feel any strong sense of ownership over the term (language is a collective construct which evolves with variant usages, after all). I wanted to communicate something clearly at the time, and it worked for that. That it’s still working for people engaging in that ongoing trans*-inclusion/exclusion debate is certainly satisfying on several levels, definitely.


Unlike tracking transgender as a term, tracking TERF was easier since the term is quite young and was popularized on the internet. What follows is a record of the term’s early usage and uptake:

8/17/2008, "sfsdffs"

8/17/2008, “implicitly aligning all radfems with the trans-exclusionary radfem (TERF) activists, which I resent”

A few days later, TigTog clarified her position:

Many many radical feminists are trans* accepting and often are active allies. It’s just a small minority who are very vocally trans-exclusionary, particularly online.

Grammatically, the “trans-exclusionary” placed before “radical feminist in the TERF acronym means that it modifies “radical feminist”, describing a subset. Just the way that the term Italian-American doesn’t mean that all Americans are ethnically Italian, it’s just describing a subset of Americans.

TigTog, 8/20/2008

And from there, the term spread to other feminist blogs:

UF

Unapologetically Female (2008)

The following conversation is illuminating:

TigTog:

Thank you for the praise for my post, Tracey. I just wish that this post of yours had a different title and introductory sentence – I’m calling out the trans-exclusionary radfems (TERFs), and I certainly don’t assume that all radfems agree with them. I have a pretty strong radical streak myself after all, and I certainly don’t agree with them.

Tracey:

Point well taken, tigtog. I actually did think twice about that title before I posted this, and I see now that I probably should have followed my instincts. I’ll change it now.

TigTog:

Thanks for the prompt response. I’ve added a clause to my post as well to make this clearer right from the introductory paragraphs.

Thanks too for the link to the post at Womanist Musings – that’s a wonderful post.

Please feel free to adopt and spread the TERF acronym, by the way, if it appeals to you.

TigTog:

Oh, I see you’ve already leapt upon TERF – excellent.

 Tracey:

No problem — thank you for pointing it out that it wasn’t clear that I don’t mean all radical feminists. I didn’t want for it to come off that way or to make it sound like that’s what you were saying.

And I loved “TERF”. I was having a hard time finding a way to make that distinction, but that word works perfectly. Thanks again.

TERF-re

The FinallyFeminism101 blog (2008)

2013

Feministe (2013)


TigTog said, “Since it’s become more common [in] usage, no doubt there are some people that use it as a slur. The same thing happened to ‘radical feminist’ and also to ‘feminist’ – any group-identifying word can and will be used as a slur by those who find that group challenging, but that doesn’t mean that the word is fundamentally/always/only a slur.” This insight seems to be generally lost on TERFs. I am sure some people do use TERF as if it were slur in the same way that some TERFs use trans woman as if it were a slur:

Back in 2008, TigTog talked about the colonization of RadFem discourse by TERFs when she said that TERFs were “implicitly aligning all radfems with the trans-exclusionary radfem (TERF) activists, which I resent.” The feminist community named the problem and  TERF as a term came into common usage.

I can understand why it’s important to TERFs that people to believe that TERF ideology represents feminism instead of its own ideology:

because the fact of the matter is that unlike born-women, who have everything (literally, everything) to lose from rape culture, transwomen have at least something (everything?) to gain. to a transwoman, cutting off her dick and turning it (inside out) into a fuckhole between her legs makes her feel better. from transwomens own mouths, we know that these fake fuckholes alleviate transwomens suffering. turning their dicks into extra-large condoms for other men to penetrate (or not, whevs…thats my hat-tip to the internet “lesbian transwomen”) actually tamps down their anxiety, and feelings of dysphoria. – TERF blog [Strong TW]

TERF  ideology doesn’t speak for women, feminists or RadFems. Now that the feminist community named this specific ideology, it’s more difficult to pass it off as representing anything but itself.

“Transwomen” are not and can never be women or Lesbians – they are simply men, trying to steal our identity and culture… One way to begin to fight their oppressing Lesbians and women is to refuse to give them what they want. At the very least, PLEASE stop calling them “women” in any form, and stop using female pronouns for them… they act like typical men and intimidate and guilt trip – everything is about them. And the hell with any Lesbian who gets in their way. Some have also learned what to say to sound believably female, but if you question a bit further, they revert quickly to male bullying techniques. As for those who do have surgery, men do a lot of bizarre things for sexual gratification, such as strangling themselves to have more exciting orgasms, which has resulted in some unintentional suicides (such as that by David Carradine.)

As Janice Raymond says, “All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating their body for themselves.”  It’s actually reminiscent of the “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” – Early TERF leader, author and activist [Strong TW]

When feminists named the movement that spends its time promoting this type of worldview, they acted to stop the colonization of feminism by self-identified RadFems who were fixated on attacking trans people. TigTog said the RadFems she knew felt that TERFs “… did not speak for them and were disrupting other discussions with anti-trans* derails.” TERF isn’t a slur; it’s the feminist community’s response to an unwanted colonization of their feminist space and identity.

To quote the popular feminist group Guerrilla Feminism, “Our feminism is trans inclusive or it is bullshit.”  


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Cristan Williams
Cristan Williams
Cristan Williams is a trans historian and pioneer in addressing the practical needs of the transgender community. She started the first trans homeless shelter in the South and co-founded the first federally funded trans-only homeless program, pioneered affordable healthcare for trans people in the Houston area, won the right for trans people to change their gender on Texas ID prior to surgery, started numerous trans social service programs and founded the Transgender Center as well as the Transgender Archives. Cristan is the editor at the social justice sites TransAdvocate.com and TheTERFs.com, is a long-term member and previous chair of the City of Houston HIV Prevention Planning Group.
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  • J.D.

    The reason that the term “TERF” is problematic is that it focuses on the act of exclusion rather than the act of inclusion, which inaccurately reflects the focus of the group that it’s referring to. The focus in having a female-only space isn’t to exclude males, but to include females. This is similar to the Black Lives Matter movement, which has made certain meetings for Black individuals only. In this, they are not excluding non-Blacks, they are including Blacks. It may seem like the focus here is exclusion, so let me give a contrasting example. If the KKK has a meeting, the point of it is exclusion because the focus of the group itself is to exclude certain groups. It is not the focus of a female-only women’s group or a Black Lives Matter meeting to exclude other people. Their groups and spaces are not established for the purpose of hating others, but for focusing on themselves. That is what separates them from hate groups and why the term “TERF” is problematic. For the same reason that transgender individuals should be allowed to have a transgender-only space, females should be allowed to have a female-only space, and Black people deserve to have a Black-only space. One might argue that it’s different because while transgender people are a minority group, females by comparison, are less of a minority. But, regardless of a group’s size, every person feels a sense of personal fulfillment from congregating with individuals like them. It gives people a chance to decompress, to share stories of similar life experiences, and to relate to each other in the way that only they can. Is it appropriate to create homogeneous groups in every context? No. But, this issue often comes up in a social and political sphere, and in that regard, I do think that gathering in a homogeneous group is acceptable. Just think of how much the transgender community would suffer if transgender people couldn’t get together without non-transgender individuals present. Imagine if there were no place where transgender people could all get together and discuss their life experiences, their personal feelings, and to do all that without having to censor their words or worry that a non-transgender person would be offended or fail to understand what they’re saying. That would be a loss to the community. Other groups feel the same way. Just as there is an unspoken understanding between transgender individuals, there is likewise an unspoken understanding between females, between Black people, and other groups. This unspoken understanding gives us all something and it’s not right to take it away from anyone. As a White person, I might feel excluded by a Black-only Black Lives Matter meeting, but when the people you care about say to you: “I need this to feel a sense of connection with other people like me,” you listen and respect that. Because, ultimately, deep down we all have that same feeling in some respect or another, and we would wish them to respect us if we asked for the same thing.

    I hope that this conveys the reason that sometimes a homogenous group is desired. If it does not, I fear that there may be no way for me to explain it to you. I can only hope that you may reflect on your own desire for a homogenous space, and then treat others as you would wish them to treat you.

    • If I had to guess, I think the feminist community came up with “exclusion” because it has been seen in feminist circles as a big issue for trans people for a long time. The radical feminist pioneer, Andrea Dworkin noted in her 1974 book Woman Hating that exclusion was the “primary emergency” facing trans folk.

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  • Melanie

    I find it fascinating that TERFs can regard the term “TERF” as derogatory!
    If you are a feminist, do you regard the term “feminist” as derogatory, or is it a label that you wear with pride?
    If you are a radical feminist, do you regard the term “radical feminist” as derogatory, or is it a label that you wear with pride?
    So if you are a trans exclusionary radical feminist, why is that different? Why aren’t you proud to be recognised as someone fighting for what you believe in?
    Could it be that TERFs know, deep down inside, that what they are doing is fundamentally wrong? That the reason they rely on lies is because the facts do not support their case, and that their abuse is based on nothing more than bigotry and unjustifiable hate? And that by joining with the extreme right wing and religious fundamentalists, they are underminingthe credibility of all feminists, and jeopardising everything that has been achieved by feminists in the past century or so?

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  • Susan B Journey

    The most amusing thing about this revisionist history is that you are actually hoodwinking some people. LMAO! Gullible kids.

    • The most amusing thing about unsupported fact assertions is that they are generally understood for what they are.

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  • Chelsea Solis

    Feminism has failed me and my sisters and brothers. Considering abandoning it entirely. They are no better than the bullies they claim transpeople and MRAs are.

    • Correctrix

      Unless you are a privileged cisgender woman, feminism was never on your side in the first place.

  • DarlieB

    Some could consider lesbianism a fetish.

    • J.D.

      fetish “the fact of getting sexual pleasure from a particular object”
      (http://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/fetish)

      Unless women are objects, lesbianism could not be considered a fetish by this definition.

      Other definitions describe a fetish as:

      fetish “the fact that a person spends too much time doing or thinking about a particular thing or thinks that it is more important than it really is.” (http://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/fetish)

      That definition equates a fetish to an obsession, particularly an unhealthy or disproportionate one. This differs from the definition of lesbianism entirely:

      lesbian “(of a woman) sexually attracted to other women; connected with lesbians” (and, for perspective, this same dictionary defines woman as: “an adult female human”)
      (http://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/lesbian)

      So, with respect to that, lesbianism meets none of the criteria for a fetish. By definition, it is merely a sexuality of females being attracted to other females. As such, those who consider lesbianism a fetish would, by definition, be wrong.

  • MersennePrimaDonna

    Those quotes from so-called “feminists” were horrible. I’ve read that some early feminists tried to distance themselves and the feminist movement from lesbians, insisting “We don’t represent them! That’s not the kind of woman that we mean when we say ‘women’s rights’!” How do these people not see that they sound exactly like them?

  • christian_transgender

    That’s a very dishonorable history, if accurate. Wow……….I understand moments of anger and losing control to the point of violating human dignity where an apology barely made things whole. If this history is accurate and given how we catch hell from basically everyone, including family I am not surprised. TERF sounds much more insulting and malignant as an acronym than saying the words in their entirety.

    Breaking it down:

    Radical feminists: yeah they exist and apparently they take no issue with gender identity, perhaps from positive personal experiences.

    Trans Exclusive: trans persons (both male and female I presume) stay away!

    So far OK. As trans one of the first things we must accept is that many exclude us: employers, friends, family. Nothing new here. Trans Exclusive Radical Feminists: sounds better than “turf”, at least to me. No insult on its face there, however if “you look nice today” can be construed as insulting, as sexual harassment, then anything can and will be misconstrued (sounds like Miranda).

    So, we are back at intention. How is TERF intended to be used? Well, like any word with dual meanings, context, like size, matters greatly ;). Ooops, how Un-Christian of me but confession is good for the soul I am told. Ok, like most words when used, context will serve to define TERF. If used for example “those who subscribe to TERF ideology”, that is a clearly a reference to the ideology. If used “you are a screwed-up TERF!”, that clearly could be misconstrued as malevolent.

    Our journey is a gauntlet. No matter our personal characteristic (humans), we will not be loved by all, but hated by some. The lust or quest for power is not solely a human pursuit, it is observed in the animal kingdom. I accept as a given that love will elude us equally from males, females, gays and lesbians. For me, a member of the Hispanic race, I am already acclimated to this. As soon as I speak in fluent Ingles and kick ass academically, all pre suppositions about me flee faster than a TERF from a transfemale…just kidding!!!!

    So, we catch hell from basically everyone who has never experienced our gender angst and who could expect anyone to truly understand how testosterone creates male angst in a female brain? Already just stating “female brain” will garner stiff opposition, however again how could they know? We catch hell, especially me with “Christian Transgender” viewed as an oxymoron, from holier-than-thou let-me-cast-the-first-stone fake Christians.

    What comforts me is the level of intelligence found in our community that is more than qualified and blessed with inordinate courage to repel any animus we receive. Those opposed against sex/gender changes stand alone, unsupported by medical fact, whilst it is wind for our sails. Our adversaries, whomever and wherever they may be, have only psychological warfare to support anti-trans equality, and history is replete with examples of such. Fortunately, such is easily exposed and debunked for what it truly is: much, much more than mere disagreement, it is vehement and often verbally combative propaganda based on the perception that a sex change is a threat to [ ].

    What me must do is maintain credibility by maintaining our composure, take lessons from our adversaries on what not to do (foul language, ad hominem, etc.) and be even more fervent ourselves because we know ourselves and our gender angst. Sure, it’s easy to lose our composure and most of us have and will again. Just remember that when there is a conflict, either verbal or physical, and a mediator must respond to solve it, it is the person who remains calm and composed that generally wins out because human instinct tells us that it is the person that loses control that typically is the “violator”.

    • Friesjones

      Guest, in writing, often less is more. Flinging a wall of words at us that sound fancy but parse into generalized platitudes is a waste of everybody’s time.

  • “Many many radical feminists are trans* accepting and often are active allies.” – TigTog

    Some trans folk are radical feminists.

    Or were: “That would be me.”

    R.I.P. Shulamith Firestone, visionary

    Sincerely,
    – bonzie anne

  • Fantastic article!