Thoughts about transphobia, TERFs, and TUMFs

photo by FreeImages.com/Patrick Moore

For many decades now, transgender communities have used the term “transphobic” as a catch-all adjective to describe language, actions, attitudes, and/or people that delegitimize or disparage us. The word certainly serves an important purpose, as it allows us to identify the many things out there that undermine or injure us. But much like other analogous terms (e.g., misogynistic, racist, homophobic, etc.), it seems to create a one-size-fits-all category that includes everything from inadvertent and relatively minor infractions, to intentional and serious attempts to dehumanize and disappear us. From a trans perspective, such a category makes some sense, as we are hurt by all of these things, whether big or small, purposeful or unintentional. But there are contexts in which such differences may be quite relevant — e.g., when considering what the appropriate activist response to a specific instance of transphobia should be.

Upon considering this, as I was writing the essay Detransition, Desistance, and Disinformation: A Guide for Understanding Transgender Children Debates, I used three different terms to differentiate between underlying sentiments or motives that often drive expressions of transphobia. I have found them useful on subsequent occasions, so I recently added these terms to my online trans, gender, sexuality, & activism glossary. That new entry reads as follows:

Trans-antagonistic, Trans-suspicious, Trans-unaware: terms I have increasingly used since the mid-’10s (e.g., see here) to make distinctions between various types of anti-transgender attitudes or positions. Some expressions of transphobia stem from people simply being “trans-unaware” — i.e., uninformed (or under-informed) about transgender people and experiences. Other individuals may be downright “trans-antagonistic,” in that they are fundamentally opposed to transgender people for specific moral, political, and/or theoretical reasons. From an activist standpoint, this distinction is quite pertinent: Trans-unaware individuals tend to be “passively transphobic” (e.g., only expressing such attitudes when they come across a trans person, or when the subject is raised), and may be open to relinquishing those attitudes upon learning more about transgender lives and issues. In contrast, trans-antagonistic individuals often actively promote anti-trans agendas (e.g., policies, laws, misinformation campaigns) and are highly unlikely to be moved by outreach or education (unless, of course, they undergo a more comprehensive philosophical transformation). The “trans-suspicious” position acknowledges that transgender people exist and should be tolerated (to some degree), but routinely questions (and sometimes actively works to undermine) transgender perspectives and politics. For example, a trans-suspicious individual might treat me respectfully and refrain from misgendering me, yet simultaneously express doubt about whether certain other people are “really trans” or should be allowed to transition. While they often consider themselves to be “pro-trans” (on the basis that they tolerate us to some degree), their strong cisnormative and cissexist biases lead them to spread much of the same misinformation, and push for many of the same anti-trans policies, as their trans-antagonistic counterparts (e.g., see here). In a world where trans-antagonistic and trans-unaware attitudes are pervasive, trans-suspicious arguments tend to strike the average cisgender person as relatively “objective” or “reasonable” by comparison (although trans people readily see through this veneer).

The distinction between the trans-antagonistic and trans-suspicious positions was central to my “Detransition, Desistance, and Disinformation” essay, as I was attempting to articulate (to a largely trans-unaware audience) why trans-suspicious views from the likes of Jesse Singal and Alice Dreger (both discussed in that essay) are so invalidating from a trans perspective. While these writers tolerate trans people to some extent (e.g., they are not calling for us to be entirely excluded from society), they clearly value cisgender identities, bodies, and perspectives over transgender ones, and they are inherently suspicious of anything transgender people say about our own lives (unless, of course, it aligns with their cisnormative presumptions). Hence, they push for many of the same policies (e.g., pro-gender-reparative therapies and anti-gender-affirming approaches to healthcare) and spread much of the same misinformation (e.g., psychological theories that have been rejected by most trans health professionals) as their trans-antagonistic counterparts, despite the fact that they seem relatively benign to outsiders.

While I did not address it in that essay, I believe that considering the distinction between trans-antagonistic and trans-unaware transphobia can also be fruitful. On the surface, these occurrences may resemble one another — they both might involve individuals misgendering me, or using certain slurs, or suggesting that I’m not a “real woman.” All of these acts may feel equally invalidating to me. But from an activist perspective, it matters whether these individuals might possibly change their ways (e.g., upon learning more about transgender people and perspectives), or whether they subscribe to some overarching ideology (e.g., religious fundamentalism, TERF) that precludes transgender people and perspectives, and thus are unlikely to ever change their ways (unless they first reject the ideology in question).

This latter distinction, and its relevance to trans activism, has led me to share some recent thoughts I’ve had about TERFs. For those unfamiliar with that term, here is my entry on it from the aforementioned glossary:

TERFs: an acronym for “Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminists,” a subgroup of radical feminists (who sometimes self-identify as “gender critical” feminists) that are strongly opposed to transgender identities, experiences, and rights. Unlike mainstream expressions of transphobia (which tend to cite religious convictions or biological determinism to support their case), TERFs typically justify their views via the following reasoning: 1) gender is merely a man-made class system designed to oppress women, and which therefore must be eliminated, 2) transgender people “buy into” and thus “reinforce” this class system, thereby undermining women and feminism, and 3) trans women constitute a specific threat because (in their eyes) we are oppressive “men” who are infiltrating women’s spaces and/or appropriating women’s identities and circumstances. Trans activists (including myself) have critiqued TERF positions by pointing out that they are essentialist, ignore intersectionality, and forward arguments that are inherently anti-feminist in other ways (see Whipping Girl, pp. 47–52, 233–245, and Outspoken, pp. 106–116; see also here). Furthermore, in Excluded (pp. 110–137), I demonstrate that their central argument — i.e., that TERFs are trying to bring an “end to gender” whereas trans people supposedly “reinforce gender” — is completely arbitrary, and exacerbates sexism rather than reducing it (as I explain here). While the label “TERF” highlights this group’s anti-trans ideology (which often manifests in harassment, doxxing, and actively fighting against trans rights), their faulty “end of gender”-versus-“reinforcing gender” logic leads them to routinely disparage other groups, including feminine women, sex-positive feminists, and sex workers (which is why TERFs are also sometimes described as SWERFs, aka Sex Worker-Exclusive Radical Feminists). Some TERFs have claimed that the word “TERF” is a slur — this ignores the fact that the acronym was created by cis radical feminists who intended it to be a neutral term, one that simply differentiates between trans-exclusive and trans-inclusive radical feminists. If the term has since accrued negative connotations, it’s simply because most contemporary feminists view trans-exclusion as invalid, and TERF rhetoric as unnecessarily disparaging.

While I am not at all sympathetic to the “TERF is a slur” accusation, I do have some concerns about how broadly this term is sometimes used today. Specifically, I have seen it used to describe virtually any feminist (and occasionally even non-feminists) who expresses transphobia and/or attempts to exclude trans women from the category of “women.” As a trans woman, I can attest to the fact that trans woman-exclusion is invalidating and often causes real material harm to trans women (especially in institutionalized settings). But from a trans activist perspective, I don’t believe that it is in our best interest to use the term in this manner.

For one thing, when more mainstream feminists such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or Rose McGowan make comments to the effect that “trans women are not women,” it is not because they adhere to a unilateral radical feminist perspective that asserts that the goal of feminism is to bring an “end to gender,” and that trans women (as well as sex workers, feminine women, sex-positive feminists, etc.) are “reinforcing gender.” I mean, virtually nobody outside of radical feminism (and a few other radical ideologies) views trans women as “reinforcing gender.” In fact, the main reason why people in the mainstream dislike or are disturbed by trans people is because they view us as undermining (not reinforcing) binary gender norms!

Sure, if we created a Venn diagram of things radical feminists say, and things that mainstream feminists (like Adichie, McGowan, etc.) say, there would be *some* overlap. And this overlap would most certainly include sound-bites like: “women have experiences that someone like Caitlyn Jenner has never had.” (btw, if you find that justification for trans-exclusion compelling, I encourage you to read this essay.) But just because they sometimes cite similar talking points, that doesn’t make these mainstream feminists “TERFs.” I get that, for some people, “TERF” may serve as a convenient shorthand for “trans-exclusive.” But as someone who is often immersed in discussions about feminism and its various strands, I’d rather not see a fairly specific term like TERF (denoting a distinct ideology) be used as a stand-in for the far more prevalent phenomenon of trans-exclusion.

More to the point, while trans-antagonistic groups such as TERFs actively work to undermine transgender acceptance and rights in society, many of these mainstream feminists seem to be predominantly trans-unaware, and are not actively working to promote trans-exclusion. In fact, both Adichie’s and McGowan’s recent comments (which can be found via earlier links) occurred in response to a trans-specific interview question and a thoughtless public comment by Jenner, respectively — in other words, it’s the sort of “passive transphobia” that is only expressed when the subject of trans people comes up. This does not excuse their responses. After all, they could have previously educated themselves about trans feminism and the diversity of trans experiences. Or they could have admitted that they do not understand trans people and perspectives enough to weigh in on this complex subject. Indeed, many people who are trans-unaware never resort to transphobic or trans-exclusive comments, perhaps because they understand that they are not knowledgeable about trans issues and/or are reserving judgment.

Most importantly, while I cannot speak on behalf of Adichie or McGowan (as I do not know them personally), I believe that some of these other mainstream feminists will eventually come around and concur with trans-inclusion upon learning more about transgender people and experiences. In fact, ever since my Debunking “Trans Women Are Not Women” Arguments essay came out last summer (addressing many common claims, TERF or otherwise), I’ve had several women write to tell me that they appreciated the piece, and that it addressed many of their initial concerns regarding transgender people and women’s spaces.

It is hard to be a woman in this world. It is also quite difficult to be transgender. And it’s easy to imagine these two groups as being comprised of entirely different sets of people. And it’s easier still to caricature trans women (and trans people more generally) as being clueless about the realities of moving through the world as female, and experiencing sexism. It shouldn’t fall on trans people (and us alone) to flesh out these nuances, and to painstakingly plead our case to others. But at the same time, in my experience, fleshing out all these nuances, and painstakingly explaining them, does sometimes win people over to our cause. In some cases, it may even turn people who had previously been trans-unaware into trans allies or advocates.

In the title of this essay, I forwarded a new acronym: TUMF. It stands for “Trans-Unaware Mainstream Feminists,” which I believe more accurately describes many women who make trans-exclusive comments. I don’t expect the term to catch on. And I don’t expect the “TERF is a slur” crowd to like TUMF any better. (In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they find TUMF to be even less aesthetically pleasing than TERF!) But I very much wanted to put this general idea out into the universe. Unlike TERFs (who are fairly rare, transphobic to the core, and frankly not worth spending the energy trying to convince), there are a lot of TUMFs out there, many of whom are uninformed and acting on a “gut level.” Many of them may be swayable. Perhaps if we start thinking about the distinction between trans-antagonistic and trans-unaware transphobia, and between TERFs and TUMFs, we can win some of the latter people over.

This essay was made possible by my Patreon supporters — if you liked this piece and want to see more like it, please consider supporting me there. You can learn more about my writings and activism at juliaserano.com.

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