At the weekend a letter was published in the Observer, signed by 130 people, which called for open debate in universities and criticised the silencing or ‘no platforming’ of people whose views are deemed transphobic or whorephobic. Two high-profile signatories, Mary Beard and Peter Tatchell, were immediately deluged with abuse and threats. Both ended up making statements (Beard on her blog, and Tatchell to Pink News) in which they reiterated their support for the principle of free speech, but took pains to distance themselves from the TERFs (‘trans-exclusionary radical feminists’) who are the main targets of the tactics the letter criticised. ‘Don’t confuse me with those people’, was the message. ‘I defend their right to express their views, but I find those views as repulsive as you do’.
Reading these statements, I couldn’t help thinking about the ending of George Orwell’s novel 1984, where Winston pleads with his torturers to do it to his lover Julia, not to him. It’s cowardly, but as a reader you understand it; you recognize that in his position you would probably do the same. In this context it’s a sign of the effectiveness of the McCarthyist tactics deployed by certain trans activists. On Twitter there is a blacklist, called the ‘blockbot’, which includes the names of Twitter users who have been reported for tweeting something that someone considers suspect, along with the reasons for their inclusion. Anyone can inspect the list if they want to know who the TERFs are, and there is nothing to prevent them from passing that information on. If you work in academe, like Mary Beard, or you’re a veteran LGBT activist like Peter Tatchell, you really don’t want to be on that list. The two of them were victims of another classic McCarthyist tactic, guilt by association. And they responded by trying to dissociate themselves, not only from the TERFs who had been no-platformed, but also from any TERFs who may have been lurking among the other signatories to the letter.
Because these tactics have been effective, most people’s knowledge of what the so-called TERFs actually believe is limited or non-existent. That their position is misguided and morally repugnant is pretty much taken for granted: if asked what it actually is, though, almost no one would be able to give an account based on statements made by the TERFs themselves. What gets repeated in public is that the TERFs are simply bigots, attacking a small and oppressed minority out of irrational fear and loathing. They are accused of disputing trans people’s right to exist, and of inciting violence against them.
If that were true, the no-platforming would be justified. But with very few exceptions it is not true. Feminists across the political spectrum support the right of trans people not to be discriminated against at work, harassed or subjected to physical and sexual assault. On the last point, there is a particularly clear intersection between feminist and trans concerns. Radical feminists have long been at the forefront of campaigns opposing male violence and demanding justice for its victims: assaults on trans people, overwhelmingly perpetrated by men, are seen as part of the same problem. There is absolutely no question about whether such attacks should be condemned: they should be and they are.
So, what gets people labelled TERFs is not their opposition to the fundamental rights most trans people care about. Rather it is a form of political dissent: you are labelled a TERF if you question or criticise the bizarre ideology which is currently promoted by some trans activists. I stress the word ‘some’ here, because the activists in question are assiduous and vocal, but they clearly don’t speak for the entire trans community: their critics include people who are trans themselves. If disagreeing with their extreme views makes you a TERF, then frankly, almost everyone is a TERF.
The core of the ideology I’m referring to is the assertion that ‘trans women are women’. (We hear a lot less from and about trans men.) Exactly what this statement means depends on whether the speaker is using the word ‘women’ to refer to a social category or a biological one. In the first case there is a discussion to be had (though people may reasonably differ in their conclusions), but in the second case the assertion is patently false. Trans women are not, by definition, biological females. Yet in the most extreme version of the ideology, you cannot say that without being labelled a TERF.
One familiar argument for trans women being women is that although they are anatomically male, their brains are female, and it is brain sex that determines someone’s gender identification. This view does have support among some scientists, but others dispute it: there is, at present, no consensus among experts. Does wanting to debate the arguments make you a bigoted purveyor of hate-speech?
Other arguments espoused by some trans activists are entirely lacking in scientific support, since they deny the existence of human sexual dimorphism. Some trans rhetoric on this point is reminiscent of creationist arguments about evolution: the idea of binary sex difference is just a theory, imposed for ideological reasons. One article currently doing the rounds online not only points out that there are intersexed people (which we can all agree there are, though this does not refute the basic principle of dimorphism), it also claims that individuals who have PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome) are ‘really’ intersexed. If that were so, it would certainly bump up the numbers of ‘non-binary’ people, since it’s estimated that at least 5% of women (some estimates put it closer to 20%) have PCOS. But having PCOS does not mean you aren’t female.
In practice everyone knows that trans women are not identical to women, but if you don’t want to be called a TERF you must deny the differences as far as possible. For feminists this has become a particular problem: any discussion of experiences which are not shared by trans women because they were not born with female bodies is liable to be denounced as ‘trans-exclusionary’. That was the reason why a US women’s college recently announced it would be discontinuing its annual performance of The Vagina Monologues: it’s exclusionary to talk about vaginas when some women do not have one. Last year a trans activist on Twitter denounced feminist campaigns against FGM as ‘cissexist’. Discussions of menstruation, pregnancy and abortion rights are all regularly interrupted by the same complaint.
Another thing we are supposed to deny is the differences that now exist among self-identified trans women. The category has broadened over time to encompass more biologically male individuals who have not modified their bodies, and who in some cases do not live permanently as women, but alternate between male and female identities. Their status as women is based on a combination of performative declarations that they are women, and surface features of ‘gender presentation’ like the names they use and the clothes they wear. Nevertheless, they invoke the ‘trans women are women’ principle: if you identify as female then you are female, and should be treated as such by others. In some circles it is considered transphobic for women to question the presence of people with openly displayed male sexual organs in spaces like communal female changing rooms, or for lesbian women to refuse to recognise those people as potential sexual partners (a resistance sometimes referred to as ‘the cotton ceiling’, a phrase which smacks of misogyny and male entitlement). It isn’t just radical feminists who find this problematic: some trans women do too. Is that really just irrational bigotry?
During the debate on the Observer letter, a man who had finally grasped what the trans v TERF dispute was about tweeted (I paraphrase for his own protection): ‘So, you’re saying we have to pretend to believe lies to be nice. Like saying I think cats can fly’. To avoid giving offence to a minority group — or to avoid persecution by its most extreme and vocal members — it’s as if we have all agreed to live in a fantasy world where reality is whatever certain people say it is. My penis is female. It is exclusionary for feminists to talk about female bodies. Cats can fly. Ignorance is knowledge.
A TERF is not someone who disputes trans people’s right to exist. What s/he disputes is the right of a small subset of trans extremists to impose their definition of reality, and their political agenda, on everyone. A TERF is someone prepared to say that the Emperor has no clothes. Though I understand their fears, it troubles me that we have got to the point where people like Mary Beard and Peter Tatchell feel obliged to throw the TERFs to the wolves rather than stand up to the Emperor and his court.
Terry Macdonald is a pseudonym.