TERF is an acronym for “trans-exclusionary radical feminist.” It is also a slur. Unlike most political slurs, it is an accurate description of the people that the acronym describes.
TERF names the subset of radical feminists that opposes the inclusion of transsexual men (aka “transwomen”) in the category “woman.” Some radical feminists welcome men who believe they are women, and many others do not. TERF names the latter and contrasts them to the former.
A TERF, among her other opinions, believes that “woman” is an exclusive club, and only humans who were born female and have matured in female bodies are entitled to belong to it. Feminism is therefore reserved for “womyn-born womyn.”
It is an indication of the transsexual movement’s power that an accurate label for its feminist opponents can become a powerful slur. Normally political slurs, especially slurs coined by the Left, are devised to conceal or distort the beliefs of the people they vilify. In this case, the slur TERF, though it describes succinctly a key belief of transsexualism’s feminist opponents, can nevertheless be wielded against them as a verbal weapon.
It is also an indication of transsexualism’s power that the opprobrium directed at TERFs is steadily flowing into “radical feminist.” Although “TERF” technically divides radical feminism into two categories, “TERF” and “radical feminist” are now becoming almost interchangeable. TERFs and radical feminists are both retrograde opponents of the steady advance of human rights. Not so long ago, “radical feminist” suggested cutting-edge modernity. It now suggests an older feminist standing athwart history and asking progress to stop.
Most non-Leftists have not yet heard of TERFs. That is not surprising, since TERFs and transsexuals both belong on the Left, and the slur itself is only about a decade old. The angry conflict between trans-exclusionary radical feminists and transsexual men is, however, much older.
An important moment in the history of TERFs occurred in 1973, decades before the label’s invention, at a gathering of the West Coast Lesbian Conference. The location was San Francisco. Well over a thousand women attended, along with at least one man.
Beth Elliott, a transsexual man who identified as a lesbian, had helped organize the conference and was scheduled to perform as a folk singer. Many of the assembled lesbians, especially an aggressive contingent calling itself the Gutter Dykes, did not believe that Beth Elliott was a woman. They organized a protest against him and threatened violence. He was eventually ejected.
The keynote speaker for the event, the radical feminist Robin Morgan, joined the attack. She revised the text of her speech to include criticisms of men like Elliott who invade female spaces: “In our mother’s names and in our own, we must not call him sister.”
In the conflict between TERFs and transsexuals, the cultural distance between 1973 and the present is surprisingly small. Not much has changed, except that the power balance has shifted drastically. TERFs and radical feminists (“radfems”) are now on the run, and transsexuals, mostly transsexual men, are pursuing them. If some TERFs want to get together to discuss their trans-exclusionary thoughts, and to convince others to share them, they must prepare for aggressive opposition. TERFs and Jared Taylor have that experience in common.
Robin Morgan favored Elliott’s exclusion from the lesbian conference not simply because he was born a man and had a male body, but because he belonged to a class of oppressors, and all women belonged to the class that men like Elliott oppressed:
I will not call a male “she”; thirty-two years of suffering in this androcentric society, and of surviving, have earned me the title “woman.”
This sentence must be understood literally. Inasmuch as a woman is still alive, she is a survivor. Radical feminists take this idea seriously.
“Woman” is not a category created by nature or biology. It does not denote a female essence or a collection of female body parts. It does not require or imply a distinctively female brain and typically feminine behavior. It is instead the name for the half of humanity that has survived oppression at the hands of the other half. Radical feminism’s vision of woman is strangely featureless. It is oppression and only oppression that makes a woman.
Members of the class woman are therefore right to hate their oppressors. Misandry is justified, Morgan argued in her speech, because “the oppressed have a right to a class hatred against the class that is oppressing them.”
Since women are formed by the male oppression that they have suffered throughout their lives, a man who claims to be a woman, and tries to look and behave like a woman, is necessarily a female impersonator. Because he has not been shaped and contorted into womanhood, any female mannerisms he displays can only be affectations mimicking the “noxious femininity” with which patriarchy has disfigured members of the oppressed class woman.
With this set of ideas in mind, Morgan likened men claiming to be women to whites pretending to be black: “We know what’s at work when whites wear blackface; the same thing is at work when men wear drag.”
Those of us who, like the arch-TERF Janice Raymond, “don’t accept . . . that someone’s desire to be a woman, or a man, makes one a woman or man” should have no objection to the radfem conclusion Robin Morgan arrived at in 1973: men cannot become women, so a man who presents himself as a woman can never be more than a transvestite. The premise she relied on is, however, both radical and unhinged.
Radical feminists do not make the modest claim that men have been “unfair” to women. They make the radical claim that, long ago in the dark mists of pre-history, men shaped woman as a subjugated class, and ever since a female body, relentlessly patrolled and dominated by men, has been an unpleasant location for a human to inhabit. Females are relegated at birth to womanhood and must endure their sad lives trapped within it.
Transsexual men cannot become women because, as Raymond puts it, “these men have not had to live in a female body with all the history that entails.” Only a female-bodied person who feels her class subjugation can claim the title woman.
In part, transsexual men arouse the anger of TERFs because, by voluntarily attempting to assume womanhood, they put the lie to this preposterous tale. It is possible to convince the ignorant that, centuries ago, the lives of white women were filled with endless subordination and degradation. It is harder to convince anyone today that, in Andrea’s Dworkin’s words, modern Western women are confined “inside a system of humiliation from which there is no escape.” The real world is much different from the dark fantasies of radical feminism. Being a woman confers many benefits, and the desire of sexually confused men to become women provides a twisted confirmation of that fact.
Transsexual men also disturb TERFs because they value the sexual markers of womanhood, which feminism views as physical locations that patriarchy has demeaningly objectified and fetishized. For example, most men find women’s breasts sexually attractive. That male attraction to female bodies is based in men’s biology, and is therefore both natural and inevitable, is genuinely difficult for radfems to understand. For Raymond, “breasts and legs in our society are fetish objects containing the essence of femaleness.” Normal men want to possess and control them, whether by looking at images of them or by copulating with women, whereas transsexual men want to acquire them for their own bodies.
Transsexual men are therefore especially culpable. Their attempt to become women by acquiring fake breasts and (sometimes) fake vaginas indicates that they believe their new female sex markers are outward signs of an inner femininity. They believe that the femininity they feel within themselves must receive physical confirmation in the female body parts that patriarchy has fetishized.
From a TERF perspective, transsexual men are thieves of a male-manufactured womanhood: men not only constructed womanhood and debilitating femininity millennia ago; they now, through surgery and hormones, believe that they can steal this womanhood, as though it were an actual essence, and place it inside their own male bodies. Transsexual men are thus guilty, on many counts, of violating the class woman.
Out of this line of feminist reasoning came what is certainly the best-known sentence in the history of TERFism: “All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves.” The author was Janice Raymond, whose Transsexual Empire appeared in 1979. She is the TERF that transsexuals hate the most.
Feminists often use “rape” as a metaphor for any male behavior they find objectionable. In 1973, radical feminists called Beth Elliott a rapist for what a press report described — no doubt correctly — as his failed attempt to seduce a lesbian. On the other hand, Raymond’s sentence, despite its feminist hyperbole, is both true and insightful.
Transsexualism assumes that each human has a fixed inner sex within a malleable physical body. A transsexual man’s malleable body can be shaped in order to match the permanent woman trapped within it. Each transsexual man can decide for himself how much shaping he wants to inflict on his body. Only he can judge how much outward feminizing his inner woman requires.
Most transsexual men — at least seventy percent — do not plan to acquire vaginas through surgery. This figure may overstate the number of transsexual men who will eventually mutilate their genitals in the hope that they can then pass as fully female. In any case, it is a certain fact that the majority of “transwomen” still have penises and testicles. Some psychiatrists plausibly claim that fear of castration is part of a boy’s growing awareness of his sex. By that standard, those transsexuals who choose to remain anatomically male are still psychologically masculine.
The decision of most transsexual men to retain their anatomical maleness is concealed by the deceptive language of transsexualism. If a transsexual man has facial electrolysis, or acquires artificial breasts, or has his penis and testicles mutilated, each of those transitioning acts can be called a “gender-affirming surgery” that makes his outward form more closely resemble the inner sex he feels. In fact, in the language of transsexualism and the medical system that serves it, men can transition into womanhood without any medical intervention whatever. Many transsexuals prefer the zero-surgery option, which can be done with or without hormones.
The difference between genital mutilation and no medical intervention of any sort is large in reality, but in the language of transsexualism each is only one choice among many. Transsexualism asks us to believe that a transsexual who merely dresses up as a woman is just as committed to realizing his inner womanhood as a transsexual who has his genitals removed. They are simply taking different routes to get to the same destination.
A sensible response to transsexuals would be that, since a person’s chromosomal sex cannot be changed, a sexually confused man should stick with the body he has and cope with his identity disorder from within it. Surgery, hormones, and wearing pink dresses cannot turn a man’s biological sex into a woman’s biological sex.
Back in 1979, Raymond recommended that transsexual men, since they could not physically escape their maleness, should remain within their own sexed bodies and should use their non-conformity to challenge constricting sex-roles. That, at least in part, is what many of them today are doing, though they are going much further than she intended.
An important cause for transsexual men is the redefinition of men’s bodies as potentially female. A penis is a female sexual organ, if the man it belongs to defines himself as a woman. If a man believes he has a woman lodged somewhere within his inner self, then his genitals, just like his eyes and his toes, must belong to his inner woman, and the old idea that women have vaginas must be revised to accommodate his peculiarity.
Since liberals have difficulty drawing lines between categories, just as they have difficulty recognizing borders between places, the transsexual belief that anatomical males can be authentic women has become a mainstream truth on the Left. Most feminists have capitulated, and only TERFs remain outside the current-year moral consensus.
The much-hated Janice Raymond now turns out to have been a gifted prophet. Forty years ago, she warned feminists that transsexual men sought to colonize women’s identities, and her infamous sentence warned that transsexualism threatened the integrity of female bodies. She argued that transsexual men saw women as collections of fetishized items, which they wished to acquire for themselves, as though distinctively female physical features were no different from man-made feminine accoutrements, like cosmetics and jewelry.
A self-identified “transwoman” who acquires a woman’s breasts through surgery, but declines to remove his penis, is surely treating womanhood as a collection of separate physical objects, each somehow containing a female essence, the possession of which helps affirm his feeling of femininity. He plunders this womanhood for the parts he likes and ignores the others.
Among transsexual men such selective plundering is the norm, and the body that results from it purportedly belongs to a woman. The real female form has been redefined by transsexualism to include not only artifactual imitations of it, but also male-female composites that do not even claim that the integral whole is their model.
At the lesbian conference in 1973, Robin Morgan presented herself as a Jewish mother working to bring calm to the fractious family of women who had come together in San Francisco. Radical feminists like Morgan should be seen as the ideological mothers of today’s transsexuals. More than any other group within second-wave feminism, they denied the significance of sexual differences. They thereby helped clear a space for confused men and women to engage in the doomed experiment of changing sexes.
If, as radical feminists believe, men and women belong to separate classes, and not to discrete biological sexes, then the physical features that distinguish women from men can only carry political information. They tell you who is being subjugated and who is doing the subjugating.
In the future that feminism strives for, they will become even less significant. According to the radical feminist Shulamith Firestone, “the end goal of feminist revolution must be, unlike that of the first feminist movement, not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself.” If this goal were ever reached, physical differences between men and women would become culturally meaningless. For radical feminists, behavioral sex differences in humans are neither natural nor inevitable, and feminism will eventually make them disappear.
Since radical feminism denies the significance of sex differences, and sees “biological determinism” as its greatest enemy, it is poorly positioned to explain why the physical markers of the opposite sex should be not be available to any man who wants to acquire them, and why a man who has acquired manufactured replicas of them should not be permitted to join the sex he chooses.
Transsexuals are only taking radical feminism’s rejection of biology to their own preferred conclusion. Radfems helped deprive womanhood of much of its content, and a small band of transsexual men have now stepped forward to place their own meanings within it.