Meaningful dialogue; is it still possible between trans women and TERFs?
If you are not au fait with the perpetual war between a small group of trans-haters; Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) and trans women, much of what you read here is likely to be rather unfamiliar.
I originally wanted to write a piece like the one Ruth Pearce wrote two years ago trying to understand the way TERFs’ feel, but there has been a great deal of poison under the bridge since then. Researching TERF arguments means wading through a barrage of abuse, harassment, disingenuousness and toytown essentialism for evidence-free assertions and unsupported assumptions. It also means viewing material published anonymously by TERFs who then ‘out’ trans people against their wishes, or about how they outed a 16-year-old trans schoolgirl who had been subject to online threats of violence.
They claim to want to ‘abolish gender’ (which mysteriously seems to begin and end with trans people) or that trans women are hyperfeminine ‘Stepford Wives’ manipulated by the patriarchy. Yet they police women’s spaces and trans women’s lives with accusations that trans women are ‘too masculine’.
So the apparent proposal by Finn Mackay that trans women should be allowed in most women’s spaces represents progress and is the kind of thing we should consider engaging with. An example has been of a feminist conference attended by trans women where trans women were included in all sessions other than one in which experiences of childhood sexual abuse of girls were discussed. I can understand this, sexual abuse in childhood is appalling; I know I used to be a primary school teacher and have dealt with its harrowing consequences on many occasions. I would support anyone wishing to discuss such things to be able to ask particular individuals to leave the room if they are talking about something traumatic from their childhood.
But why shouldn’t anyone a speaker feels uncomfortable talking in front of be asked to leave the room, why single out trans women? OK one of the rationales for this is that trans women did not experience growing up as girls, especially young girls. Yet this no longer the case, and it is likely that increasing numbers of trans women will not only have identified as but also, appeared and been treated as girls from quite young ages.
To the subject of language: it seems TERFs object to the term ‘cisgender’ claiming that it is an ‘insult’. Reflecting on the fact that a tiny fraction of an oppressed and disempowered 1.2% of the world’s population have used it to express their frustrations against a far larger and more powerful 98.8% demonstrates just how confected this argument is. Ultimately TERFs are oppressively trying to deny trans people the language with which to make sense of their situations.
It seems TERFs don’t like being called TERFs is because they regularly respond to criticism of their abuse, harassment and mendacity by calling it an ‘attack on women’ or an ‘attack on feminists’. This is of course profoundly disingenuous; our arguments are with TERFs not with other feminists or other women. Additionally TERFs often accuse trans people of trying to silence them. Yet TERFs who have made this accusation have also used legal threats to silence trans people. So with this sort duplicity going on it seems impossible to imagine any meaningful dialogue between trans women and TERFs.
However this does not mean trans feminists should not talk to other radical feminists; another reason for the acronym - radical feminists who are not anti-trans should not be lumped in with those who are. One radical feminist recently complained to me that TERFs’ actions had made her stop describing herself as a radical feminist. Nonetheless it is important that trans people engage in a meaningful dialogue with non-transphobic cisgender radical feminists. This is the optimistic way forward.