This article was originally inspired by Delilah Campbell’s “Who Owns Gender” and its wonderful wordplay on TERF and turf wars over gender. TERF is a recent trans activist acronym for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist and at first sight it appears to be an improvement on the previous tendency to attack all radical feminists, or sometimes all feminists. Not everyone has got the memo, unfortunately, and many trans activists continue to use the more aggressive radfem scum. Indeed, it now appears that you do not need to specify radfem as trans activist Roz Kaveney commented on the recent Twitter hate fest against non-trans people: “Given that #thathashtag is being attacked by scum varying from [Louise] Mensch to Gallus [Mag], solidarity dictates we don’t seem to help them.” As Mensch would not be everyone’s idea of a radical feminist, it appear that Kaveney regards all feminists, radical or not, as scum.
Despite it being an improvement on other terms, TERF remains deeply problematic. It shares with cis the unfortunate ease with which it can trip off the tongue and roll into an insult. It also shares with cis the rank hypocrisy of a trans community self-obsessed with internal label wars applying an unwelcome label to any other group. Most troubling is the fact that TERF allows an aggressive writer to give the outward appearance of not being anti-feminist, especially on below the line comments where the acronym is seldom spelt out.
Using a term like TERF is not going to help move from turf wars to peace building, not that those using the term show much interest in peace. Someone who does show such an interest is Elizabeth Hungerford, often termed a TERF as a co-signatory of a letter to the UN pleading for gender identity protections to be implemented in ways that did not erode women’s rights. Her recent article “Sex Not Gender: There is No War” closed with a call to move the debate between feminists and trans activists onto a more constructive level. One way to improve the diplomacy would be for trans activists to stop referring to TERFs and for feminists to cease referring to trans women as men. Naming each other in those ways does not promote dialogue, rather it encourages a quick move from naming to shaming. Refusing to change these terms because of past hurts on either side needlessly prolongs the conflict.
Trans activists and feminists have to ask themselves if they are willing to begin building a peace, or do they want to continue prolonging a conflict that prevents the situation being improved for either trans people or for women. This last week has shown just how much work there is to do in that regard. The road to peace will be long and hard, but a road is useless until you are prepared to take a first step along it.
© Mercia McMahon 2013