Why we fight the TERF war

The past year has seen a reprehensible mobilization of Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists – known (much to their outrage) as TERFs – people who deny that trans women are women and use this ideological position as a basis to incite violence and repression against the trans community. Despite being a fringe group, we can nevertheless expect an intensification of TERF activity with the upcoming launch of the consultation on proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) – changes that have no bearing on cis women (those whose gender matches what they were assigned at birth) but have been used as fuel for the TERF campaign to make the lives of trans people even harder. This article highlights that although TERFs present themselves as left-wing protectors of women’s rights, in reality they actively encourage police and state violence, which most adversely affects working class trans women and trans women of colour.

The TERF obsession with spreading misconceptions about the GRA reveals how thinly their hatred of trans people is disguised by their so-called feminism. Proposed changes to the GRA would simply streamline the lengthy bureaucratic processes and remove the requirement to provide medical evidence to a panel, making it slightly less tedious to change our legal gender and name on our birth certificates. This is being mis-represented by TERFs to spread fear about men self IDing as women and thus entering women only spaces to harm women; amongst their “fair and reasonable” demands, A Woman’s Place UK – a particularly heinous group of TERFs – ask for the government to consult with women’s groups (meaning women assigned female at birth) as to “how self-declaration would impact on women-only services and spaces”. But proposed changes to the GRA have no bearing on the 2010 Equalities Act, which already protects women-only spaces, nor on the inclusion of trans women whose position is also protected by this legislation.

Fear mongering about the dangers posed to women by the threat of men entering women’s spaces has negative consequences for all women, given that it reproduces myths about sexual predators as strangers that actual feminists have been trying to refute for decades. As all feminists know, women and non-binary people are most likely to be attacked by cis men who we know. It’s the propagation of the idea that it’s strangers we need to fear rather than our friends and families that has created so many difficulties for those of us trying to speak up about sexual violence and hold those responsible accountable. Men access our spaces and our bodies without consent every day when they sexually assault and rape women and non-binary people in our bedrooms, homes, streets, workplaces and every other place where we go. It’s called the patriarchy and it means they really don’t need to wear dresses to hurt us.

And trans women are harmed in the greatest numbers by the sexual violence enacted by men, that the TERFs claim to be so concerned about. According to Glasgow and Clyde Rape Crisis, trans women are statistically more likely to experience rape and sexual violence than their cis gender counterparts, and also find it harder to access services. Add this to the immense challenges faced by trans women on a daily basis – from street harassment, to exclusion from jobs, to being ostracized by their families – for the extent of the TERF’s malicious attack on an oppressed minority. Here we can identify clear similarities between the way that TERFs pursue their anti-trans agenda by positioning trans women as the ultimate threat to cis women, and Gays Against Sharia – the fascist group who pursue their Islamophobic agenda to target the already highly marginalized Muslim community by way of tokenizing gay people. Weaponizing victim status to demonize others and encourage hatred is a classic Fascist tactic, and the TERFs deserve no more sympathy than we would afford their right-wing compatriots.

As if this wasn’t damaging enough, TERFs use their considerable resources to work towards greater state repression of the trans community (as well as others, such as sex workers). They’ve gleefully badgered police into pressing charges against a trans activist defending herself, persuaded the police visit the homes of activists who have used the word “TERF”, and reported trans activists to the hate monitoring organization SARI for ‘crimes of misogyny’ during peaceful protests. TERFs campaign to exclude trans women from women’s prisons and refuges, predominantly targeting trans women from working class backgrounds and trans women of colour, as those most targeted by the institutionally racist prison industrial complex. The exclusion of trans women from these places is nothing short of a demand that these women be exposed to greater violence and possible death. Too many trans women have died in men’s prisons as it is. In 2015, 21 year old Vicki Thompson incarcerated at HMP Leeds was found dead, after being subject to inhumane treatment and bullying, repeatedly telling staff she would be, “carried out in a box”. Just weeks later, Joanne Latham took her life in Woodhill prison. Jenny Swift was found dead in her cell of men’s prison HMP Doncaster in 2016, after being denied her hormones and being subjected to harassment by guards.

Appealing to the state to intensify punishment and repression that already targets working class and trans women of colour is deplorable, and reveals the true goal of the TERFs – to harm trans women and decimate the trans community. Countering the TERFs is not solely about defending trans women, or even the trans community as a whole. It’s as much about class struggle, feminist struggle, anti-racist struggle, the prison abolitionist struggle and work that needs to be done by anyone who doesn’t want blood on their hands.

The author of this text asked to withdraw their name due to TERF abuse. (zb)