Inside TERFs’ fight to erase transgender rights

In recent years, anti-transgender legislation has devastated the rights of trans people in the United States, and it’s no secret that conservatives in power are the direct cause. However, the arguments and contributions to political discourse made by a specific and often overlooked group of people have also had a significant influence on the elimination of trans rights: TERFs, or Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists.
Often utilizing arguments that trans women are tarnishing the idea of what it means to be a woman or reinforcing gender stereotypes, TERFs have become increasingly dangerous as their movement grows in popularity, largely thanks to its prominence on social media. Not only is their rhetoric hateful and misleading, but their surface-level proximity to feminism allows them to easily disguise themselves as progressive and appeal to people across the political spectrum.
In 2020, J.K. Rowling, the author of the “Harry Potter” series, posted a series of tweets, all claiming that trans people erase the struggles of cisgender women by suggesting that biological sex does not exist. Though this comment was met with immediate criticism from members of the LGBTQIA+ community, her rhetoric garnered a shocking amount of support as well. Not only did her career continue to thrive despite the backlash, she also successfully reenergized the online TERF movement that welcomed her message of hate and false female empowerment.
Ultimately, Rowling seems to have benefitted from her ignorant statements. While she might have lost favor with one community, her contributions to TERFdom have given the movement mainstream exposure and presented it in a way that is palatable to a wider audience. The acceptance of her statements also seems to have inspired other celebrities like Bette Midler and Macy Gray to recently come forward in support of similar TERF ideologies, further promoting the idea that it is acceptable to be transphobic as long as it is from a “feminist” perspective.
Based on Rowling’s continued success, it is evident that TERFs have been and continue to be organized and strategic in their actions, granting them alarming power in politics. In Tina Vasquez’s article “It’s Time to End the Long History of Feminism Failing Transgender Women,” she argues that transgender people’s inability to access government-funded healthcare under the Reagan administration was greatly influenced by feminists who were against transgender people for the sake of reducing “sex-role stereotyping.”
Incidents like this still occur today, especially in isolated settings like school boards and local governments, where individual opinions can be accepted without being properly critiqued. Whether it be claiming that trans women using the women’s bathroom threatens “real women” or that trans women competing in women’s high school sports is unfair, hateful legislation based on similar sentiments is consistent with language regularly used by TERFs. Although it appears to move slowly, the influence of TERFs on others in power is and will continue to be harmful to transgender people on a massive scale.
Claiming that they are sticking up for women’s rights, TERFs often exploit labels related to social justice to reel in newer, less-knowledgeable feminists without them even realizing it. This point is echoed by TransAdvocate editor Cristian Williams within Vasquez’s article, stating that “TERFs do a good job of colonizing feminist discourse by framing their hate as a ‘feminist critique of gender.” TERFs also reject the actual label of “TERF” in favor of vague, misleading terms like “gender-critical feminist.” This then deceives others into thinking that they are sticking up for a crucial issue that society refuses to acknowledge as opposed to what it actually is — bigotry.
Given that the opinions of TERFs are often employed by conservatives, right-wing politics and the strategies associated with it are thus woven into TERF tactics. Much like conservatives, TERFs frequently mask their hate as “looking out” for others, specifically cisgender women. They also tend to manipulate events to aid their arguments — for example, turning a transgender woman winning an athletic event into supposed unfairness towards cisgender women.
Politically, TERFs and conservatives fundamentally benefit from the actions of one another.
Although TERFs might utilize the defense that they are standing up for women’s rights, this is inherently false. By excluding transgender women, they are reinforcing the idea that women must adhere to rigid standards to be considered “real women,” thus attacking women’s rights altogether. Their sentiments are hypocritical and they validate the very ideas and traditions that they claim to be challenging.
Simply put, if you’re not fighting for all women, you’re fighting against them.
In leaving TERF ideology to thrive with little resistance, the movement will continue to grow in power and influence. It is crucial that TERFs are exposed for what they truly are before the damage they have created becomes completely irreversible. TERFs pose a direct threat to not just transgender people but to the essence of feminism itself, ultimately upholding patriarchal standards rather than eliminating them. To ensure the permanent protection of transgender people, we must be willing to call out ignorance and hate when we see it, rather than allow it to spread and pollute the minds of others on its own.