Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism (TERF) refers to several related tendencies in feminism that developed during the second-wave feminist movement of the late 20th century that are critical of transgender people, particularly trans women. Mainstream feminists frequently accuse the subgroup of anti-feminism and of aligning with social conservatism. The term itself is controversial, with some trans-critical feminists claiming that it is inaccurate or a slur.
The exclusion of trans people in the feminist movement coincided with the second-wave feminist movement of the 1970s. Throughout the 1970s, various influential feminists voiced their concerns about the acceptance of transgender women in the feminist community.
In 1973, writer Robin Morgan criticized transgender folksinger Beth Elliot. She said:
“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’; one walk down the street by a male transvestite, five minutes of his being hassled (which he may enjoy), and then he dares, he dares to think he understands our pain? No, in our mothers’ names and in our own, we must not call him sister.”
Four years later, Gloria Steinman said of trans tennis player Renée Richards, “A frightening instance of what feminism could lead to[…]living proof that feminism isn’t necessary[…]At a minimum, it was a diversion from the widespread problems of sexual inequality.”
On August 19th, 2008, blogger tigtog wrote a post, apologizing for a post regarding “MichFest,” which has been critizied in the past for their trans-exclusionary practices in 1999, which were protested by Camp Trans. In the post, tigtog is one of the earliest to use the term “TERF” in online discussion. They write, “I am aware that this decision is likely to affront some trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs), but it must be said: marginalising trans women at actual risk from regularly documented abuse /violence in favour of protecting hypothetical cis women from purely hypothetical abuse/violence from trans women in women-only safe-spaces strikes me as horribly unethical as well as repellently callous.”
On March 15th, 2011, Urban Dictionary user zmas defined the terms as “That group of feminists that claims that trans women aren’t really women, as biological determinism is only a fallacy when it used against them, not when they use it against others.” Within seven years, the post (shown below) has received more than 2,000 upvotes.
The term has become a controversial one within the feminist community. Many people believe that the term “TERF” is a slur, meant to ostracize those who are critical of transgender women in the feminist community. In July 2013, Samantha Allen published an article for Jacobin entitled “CounterPunch and the War on Transgender People” in which she refers to TERFs as a “hate group.”
The following month, on August 2nd, 2013, Elizabeth Hungerford, one of the women explicitly refered to in Allen’s piece, responded by calling the term a slur. She wrote, “By equating the speech of gender critical feminists with “bullying” and “contempt,” Allen materially misrepresents the positions taken by the women she references in her article. Allen actually calls for more people to recognize radical feminists as a hate group and then pointedly adopts the term Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist (TERF) to refer to them throughout the article. Make no mistake, this is a slur. TERF is not meant to be explanatory, but insulting. These characterizations are hyperbolic, misleading, and ultimately defamatory. They do nothing but escalate the vitriol and fail to advance the conversation in any way.”
On August 4th, 2014, The New Yorker published an article outlining the debate and ongoing animosity regarding the term. They write, “The term can be useful for making a distinction with radical feminists who do not share the same position, but those at whom it is directed consider it a slur.”
Four years later, YouTuber ContraPoints published a video of a fictional dialogue about the term. The post (shown below, left) received more than 150,000 views in less than six months.
On February 18, 2018, YouTuber Riley J. Dennis published a video entitled “What is a TERF?” The post (shown below, right) recieved more than 26,000 views in less than one month.
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