What TERF Means and Why We Should Talk About It

TERF BELatina Latinx
Illustration by Jenny Dodge

If, like everyone else at the moment, you’ve been glued to Twitter and refreshing the feed so as not to miss a second of history unfolding before your eyes, you’ve probably stumbled upon the word TERF or the hashtag #terfisaslur once or twice.

TERF is an acronym for “Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminist,” a term coined in 2008 to identify the minority of feminists who exclude transgender, non-binary, and gender-fluid people from the struggle for gender equality.

This trend is based on the exclusion of trans women from designated women’s spaces and opposition to transgender rights legislation.

Although linguistics still debates whether or not the term TERF is a slur, we cannot but be critical of the stance if we are part of a feminist movement that understands the movementas an umbrella embracing all struggles for equality and against injustice.

It was the comments of the famous English author J.K. Rowling on Twitter last Saturday that has relit the fuse of this debate.

Rowling commented on an opinion piece published by Devez, a media platform for the global development community, entitled “Creating a More Equal Post-COVID-19 World for People Who Menstruate,” saying:

“‘People who menstruate. I’m sure there used to be a Word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”

Rowling was again attacked on social media for her transphobic stances in reducing only menstruating people to the term “woman,” which would nullify, in her speech, transgender people without a uterus.

Rowling pushed back. “If sex isn’t real, there’s no same-sex attraction. If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased. I know and love trans people, but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives. It isn’t hate to speak the truth,” she wrote. “The idea that women like me, who’ve been empathetic to trans people for decades, feeling kinship because they’re vulnerable in the same way as women — ie, to male violence — ‘hate’ trans people because they think sex is real and has lived consequences — is a nonsense.”

To those who cried TERF, she responded:

“I respect every trans person’s right to live any way that feels authentic and comfortable to them. I’d march with you if you were discriminated against on the basis of being trans. At the same time, my life has been shaped by being female. I do not believe it’s hateful to say so.”

Personalities like the Canadian duo Tegan and Sara, known for their activism in the LGBTQ+ community, responded:

“If you are a TERF and following us, please fuck off and unfollow us,” and many followed suit, bringing to social networks again the diatribe between feminism and the intersectional struggle for the rights of all.

Trans-inclusive cisgender radical feminist blogger Viv Smythe, who has been credited with popularizing the term in 2008, explained how “dehumanizing trans-hostile rhetoric” simply hinders the true goal of the feminist movement.

“For most feminist cis women, considering the rights and safety of trans women rarely intrudes upon our feminist practice until somebody wants to exclude trans women from our spaces and expects us to agree,” she wrote in an opinion piece for The Guardian. “That’s when we realize women we know have very different reactions to the question of whether to include trans women as part of our sisterhood, or deny their womanhood and exclude them.”

“Much of the factional divide here comes down to yet another gatekeeping argument about purity in feminism, perennial since the women’s suffrage movement, and this one has uncomfortable echoes of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s arguments against extending voting rights to black men.”

“Various ‘waves’ of feminism developed as schisms arose regarding which directions were the truest or most effective ways to liberate women from sexist oppression,” she added. “Those (and new) divisions will always be part of any movement focused on social change, because each step of progress sees further layers of injustice uncovered.”

As the slogan says, the revolution will be feminist, or it won’t be.