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A trans Pride flag crosswalk in Calgary was defaced in August 2019 with a violent message, which was later covered with fresh paint and positive messages were left written with chalk. Anti-trans activism from feminists remains a challenge for transgender people. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dave Chidley

Why the words we use matter when describing anti-trans activists

Suzanne Moore, a columnist at the Guardian, says she identifies as “a woman who won’t go down quietly.” But to many, she’s a trans-exclusionary radical feminist — a TERF. Some say TERF is a slur. It isn’t. But it is a misleading term for anti-trans activists like Moore.

Over the past year, disputes between two groups of people, both calling themselves feminists, have erupted on the internet and off — and drawn considerable interest even outside feminism. These disputes concern the status of some of the most discriminated against and marginalized women: trans women.

In this debate, one group advocates for these women by insisting on their recognition as women and maintaining that feminism requires fighting for their rights as women. The other group questions — and often denies — the recognition of trans women as women. They fight against the key demands of trans women, partially by insisting that this opposition is somehow feminist.

They object strenuously to this, saying that TERF is a slur.

Their argument turns on the fact that some of the people using the term TERF combine it with angry, and even at times violent and abusive, rhetoric. But many terms are regularly combined with angry, or even violent or abusive rhetoric: Murderer, fascist, racist, Democrat, Republican, Brexiter, Remainer, Tory. That doesn’t make them slurs.

TERF is not a slur. Nonetheless, I don’t use the word because it’s inaccurate and misleading.

Why the exact language matters

I’m a scholar not only of feminism but also of language, and I currently work on the use of language to foment hatred. (I’ve also done a lot of work to try to improve things for women in philosophy.) Battles over terms like TERF and woman are central to my work.

So-called TERFs think the term is inaccurate too, but for a different reason: they insist that they’re not trans-exclusionary because they include trans men in the category of women. This is technically accurate on a very literal-minded understanding of what it is to be trans-exclusionary. However, including people against their will in a category that they reject is not what is normally meant by inclusion.

Some radical feminists like British columnist Julie Burchill and American author Janice Raymond are indeed anti-trans (hence the initial use of trans-exclusionary radical feminist). But many of the most important figures such as American feminist legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon and the late feminist critic Andrea Dworkin — are quite emphatic about including trans women as women.

It’s difficult to precisely define radical feminism. But it’s clear that it includes a commitment to a very substantial overhaul of inherited attitudes about such things as femininity, masculinity, sexual desire and relationships between women and men.

These attitudes, radical feminists maintain, are deeply intertwined with the sexual domination of women by men. Among other things, this typically involves not taking our desires and attractions at face value, but subjecting them to critical scrutiny.

Consider the tweet that got J.K. Rowling widely labelled a TERF:

The end of the tweet is the portion that resulted in Rowling being labelled a TERF. It references the case of Maya Forstater, whose temporary employment contract was not renewed because of her anti-trans tweets.

The rest of the tweet is completely at odds with radical feminism’s commitment to scrutiny of all our inherited attitudes and instead expresses a very liberal commitment to just accepting people as they are (a commitment undermined, it’s worth noting, by support for anti-trans activists). Calling J.K. Rowling a radical feminist of any kind is clearly not accurate.

Why feminism needs to be trans-inclusive

Indeed, I hesitate to attach the label feminist to any view that is committed to worsening the situation of some of the most marginalized women.

And trans women are undoubtedly marginalized. Consider that 30 per cent of trans female teenagers attempt suicide; or that anti-discrimination laws that cover gender identity are rare; or that 72 per cent of victims of anti-LGBTQ (or HIV-related) hate crimes were trans women.

An absolutely key component of this marginalization and discrimination is the denial of trans women’s identity as women.

To be a feminist, you do not have to be in support of every group of women. (To take just one example, white supremacist women don’t deserve our support.) But feminists should not stand in opposition to one of the most marginalized groups of women.

Of course, defining feminism is an ongoing challenge. But embedded in the term TERF is the idea that the people working to harm the interests of marginalized women are radical feminists. And we certainly shouldn’t take either the radicalism or the feminism for granted.

All feminism is ‘gender critical’

Those who deny trans rights while claiming feminism would prefer to be called gender-critical feminists. But that term too is terribly misleading. By definition, feminists are critical of gender.

Of course, within feminism there are disagreements over whether we should be working to eliminate gender, expand our range of gender categories, and/or reform society so that gender does not carry the same weight that it currently does. But no feminist at all thinks gender is just fine as it is.

Calling people gender-critical feminists suggests that people like me — and, indeed, trans feminists — are not making critical points about gender. Instead, a clearer term is called for: anti-trans activists.

Using TERF leads to misguided battles over what counts as a slur, and, more importantly, obscures the truth about the nature of the real battle at hand. At the core, it’s a contest over the rights of trans people. That is what needs to be understood and foregrounded. The words we use can help to determine how those rights are shaped and protected, or not.

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