The word TERF (or terf) is a slur that is used predominantly by transgender activists and their allies against people who criticize the transgender movement on the basis of feminist concerns. Since the slur is used for people with feminist concerns, the main target tend to be women. As such, it's usually understood to be an anti-feminist, sexist and misogynist slur.
The original meaning of the word was Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist, where the "trans-exclusionary" part referred to those holding the idea that transwomen should not be included under a political definition of woman, and the "radical feminist" part was meant neutrally, i.e. for people who would indeed describe themselves as radical feminists in the true sense. Over time, the acronym started to be used like any four-letter word. The capitalization is frequently omitted, and the original meaning ignored. Still, users of the term tend to claim that it's a neutral description. The "trans-exclusionary" part may now refer to those who think transwomen should not have unfettered access to female-only spaces (such as rape relief shelters, segregated hospital wards, changing rooms, public toilets, etc.), should not partake in women's sports where they have an unfair advantage, should not be considered a natural part of the lesbian dating pool, etc. Although most members of the public would see these as rather sensible positions, especially considering a "transwoman" may have intact, unaltered male anatomy, transgender activists see these types of "exclusion" as unacceptable.
A closely associated term is SWERF, which is supposed to stand for Sex-Worker-Exclusionary Radical Feminist and is used for those who see the sex industry (prostitution, pornography, etc.) as highly exploitative and sexist. Like TERF, the term is almost always applied as a slur, and to misrepresent the political position of the person it's used against. Ironically, some of those who have to face the term most commonly are women who worked in prostitution and became anti-prostitution activists as a result of their own experiences as so-called sex workers.
The oldest known use of the term is by Viv Smythe aka "tigtog" in a blog post from 2008. She defended the term as late as 2018, in an article written for The Guardian. Transgender activists frequently try to defend the term on the grounds that Viv Smythe is a woman who herself claims to be a radical feminist, and seems to have first used the term in a way that is not derogatory. Of course, the benign origins of a term does not mean that it cannot evolve into a slur.
Recognition as a slur
The evolution of the term from 2008 into the early to mid 2010s is not well documented. Mostly, feminists had to face the term on social media, where it began to be used regularly to debase their position. In July 2014, Feminist Current published two articles referencing the term. The first, written by C. K. Egbert and titled Defending the 'TERF': Gender as political, explains and defends in length the political theory underlining the ideas supported by feminists who are slurred as "terf." The second, written by Sarah Ditum and titled How 'TERF' works, shortly analyses a situation in which a woman is pressured to retract a statement opposing violence against women, on the grounds that the statement originally stems from a feminist who is considered a "terf". Since Feminist Current is highly acclaimed among radical-leaning feminists, its decision to support the women slurred with "terf" could be seen as a turning point.
Another Feminist Current article defending those targeted with the slur was published in November 2015, written by Penny White and titled Why I no longer hate 'TERFs'. In the article, Penny White explains how she herself used to be convinced that so-called "TERFs" are worthy of contempt, but changed her mind after starting to look closer into the issue. This experience seems to resonate with many women and some socially liberal men to this day, who start out being supportive of the transgender movement, only to start becoming skeptical after negative experiences and observations, ultimately leading them to be also labeled "terf" and shunned by transgender activists and their allies. After that, Feminist Current started publishing articles critical of the transgender movement with some frequency, much to the enragement of transgender activists.
In June 2017, transgender activist Mya Byrne came to the San Francisco Pride Parade with a t-shirt reading "I PUNCH TERFS", decorated with a large fake blood-stain. Byrne uploaded a selfie of him wearing the t-shirt at the parade, captioned "This is what gay liberation looks like #pride #yesallterfs" which sparked many negative reactions. The t-shirt would later be displayed at an "art exhibit" at the San Francisco Public Library, set up by the trans activist group The Degenderettes. After complaints, the library removed the t-shirt from the exhibition, though similar items showcasing a violent mentality remained, such as baseball bats wrapped in barbed wire and painted in the colors of the transgender pride flag.
Vandalism and assaults
In February 2017, the newly opened Vancouver Women's Library was met with a small group of vandals, including a very obviously male person who claimed to be a female sex worker. They ripped off a poster, poured wine on a book, and harassed those trying to partake in the opening celebration. Their stated reason was that the library included books which they deemed to support so-called "TERF" and "SWERF" ideology. Feminist Current reported on the incident.
In September 2017, a group of feminists wanted to hold a meeting to discuss proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) in the New Cross Learning community Library in London. The library had to cancel the event after harassment by transgender activists. The organizers of the meeting decided to meet at Speaker's Corner, before going to the newly chosen meeting place, which was not announced to protect it from harassment. In Speaker's Corner, they were met with a group of transgender activists shouting slogans, notably "when TERFs attack, we fight back." Maria MacLachlan, who was filming the protesters with her digital camera, was attacked by someone running out of the trans activist group, who then tried to grab her camera. As the unsuccessful attacker ran back behind his friends, MacLachlan tried to get closer to the group to get his face on camera. Several of the activists started assaulting her in that moment. One of the attackers, later revealed to be Tara Wolf, was ultimately charged with assault by beating. The event could be considered a cornerstone in the escalating hatred transgender activists show against feminists, as no such clearly documented assault in relation to the slur "TERF" existed before, and the event gained widespread attention in the news, being covered by The Guardian, The New Statesman, The Telegraph, The Times, The Evening Standard, and The Daily Mail. Of course, it was also covered by Feminist Current. In the aftermath of the event, many transgender activists online defended or even celebrated the assault, leading Meghan Murphy to publish the piece 'TERF' isn't just a slur, it's hate speech. Some publications in support of transgender activists have tried to claim that the assailant was really acting in self-defense, and tried to prove this claim by uploading carefully edited cuts of the recording showing the assault, or by framing the assault as "standing up to bullies" who "provoke" transgender activists (by having opinions they don't like, we have to presume).
In 2018, transgender activist Dana Rivers was on trial for triple murder. The victims were a lesbian couple and their adoptive son. Rivers stabbed and shot the victims, before trying to set their house on fire, in November 2016. It remains unclear whether Rivers was motivated by the hatred against feminists and lesbians promulgated by transgender activists. Rivers was, however, a member of the group Camp Trans, which was created to protest the women-only rule of the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival (aka MichFest). Autostraddle described Rivers as a "very well-known transgender activist."
Analysis of the term
The original acronym could be split in two halves: "trans-exclusionary" and "radical feminist." Though many people targeted with the word do not see themselves as radical feminists, their ideals most often tend to align with radical feminism anyway, making that part somewhat accurate. The "trans-exclusionary" part however is rather ambiguous, and its meaning seems to change at the whim of the person using the term.
When those using the term want to justify it as an objective and accurate description, they will use rather mundane and basic definitions of "exclusion" that applies easily to most people the term is used against. Examples of this might include:
- Wanting transwomen with unfair anatomic advantages to be excluded from women's sports
- Wanting transwomen with an obvious male anatomy (such as intact male genitals) to be excluded from sex segregated spaces of privacy, such as changing rooms
- Not considering transwomen to be literally women, by pointing at the dictionary definition that is "adult human female"
- Wanting to exclude transwomen from some political groups that want to focus on struggles unique to people born with female anatomy
- Wanting to exclude crimes committed by transwomen from being recorded as female criminality, since the crime patterns of transwomen seem more in line with crime patterns of men, who commit the vast majority of violent crimes, especially sexual crimes
However, once the term "TERF" is applied to someone on the basis of them holding these opinions (which many people including non-feminists would agree are sensible), the definition of "exclusion" is quickly sharpened to justify expressions of hatred. Sometimes, the "trans-exclusionary" is even hyperbolically turned into "trans-exterminatory" to increase its panic-inducing effect. The website (or should we say whacksite) The TERFs goes as far as claiming that the people labeled "TERF" want to:
- Exclude trans people from housing (make them homeless)
- Exclude trans people from employment (make them unemployed)
- Exclude them from education
- Exclude them from accomodation equality
- Exclude them from local, state, national and United Nations protections(!)
As such, the women labeled "TERF" are represented less as women who simply want to uphold women's sex-based rights, and more like fascist monsters, which is then used to incite hatred and violence against them. It's also noteworthy how exclusion of transwomen turns here into exclusion of all trans people (from whatever). As a matter of fact, women targeted as "TERFs" will frequently say explicitly that they welcome transmen in their groups, since transmen also face the sex-based oppression all women face from birth.
The strategy of transgender activists of using simple definitions of "TERF" to make the term look accurate, but then twist the definition to justify hatred, is quite similar to a "troll" strategy that has been noted by philosopher Nicholas Shackel, and dubbed the Motte and Bailey Doctrine in a paper titled The Vacuity of Postmodernist Methodology:
"Troll’s Truisms are used to insinuate an exciting falsehood, which is a desired doctrine, yet permit retreat to the trivial truth when pressed by an opponent. In so doing they exhibit a property which makes them the simplest possible case of what I shall call a Motte and Bailey Doctrine (since a doctrine can be a single belief or an entire body of beliefs).
A Motte and Bailey castle is a medieval system of defence in which a stone tower on a mound (the Motte) is surrounded by an area of land (the Bailey) which in turn is encompassed by some sort of a barrier such as a ditch. Being dark and dank, the Motte is not a habitation of choice. The only reason for its existence is the desirability of the Bailey, which the combination of the Motte and ditch makes relatively easy to retain despite attack by marauders. When only lightly pressed, the ditch makes small numbers of attackers easy to defeat as they struggle across it: when heavily pressed the ditch is not defensible and so neither is the Bailey. Rather one retreats to the insalubrious but defensible, perhaps impregnable, Motte. Eventually the marauders give up, when one is well placed to reoccupy desirable land.
For my purposes the desirable but only lightly defensible territory of the Motte and Bailey castle, that is to say, the Bailey, represents a philosophical doctrine or position with similar properties: desirable to its proponent but only lightly defensible. The Motte is the defensible but undesired position to which one retreats when hard pressed. I think it is evident that Troll’s Truisms have the Motte and Bailey property, since the exciting falsehoods constitute the desired but indefensible region within the ditch whilst the trivial truth constitutes the defensible but dank Motte to which one may retreat when pressed."
In our case, the Motte is an easily defensible statement like: "You don't consider transwomen literally women, therefore you are trans-exclusionary, which makes you a TERF." Whereas the Bailey is: "You want to exclude trans people from housing and employment, therefore I'm justified in hating you with a passion!"
It could also be called a "bait-and-switch" argument, where one is "baited" into agreeing with the claim that someone is a "TERF" by using a mundane definition of "trans exclusion," and then the definition is switched into something bad, to justify expressions of hatred.
Inspection of the claims on The TERFs
It should be noted that The TERFs offers little more than out-of-context quotes from several decades ago as "evidence" for its hyperbolic claims regarding so-called "TERF" ideology. It also showcases a small number of cherry-picked tweets, half of which are from right-wing sources that also happen to oppose the transgender movement, which trans activists claim proves that feminists are secretly allied with them in a big conspiracy. (This line of thinking is often ridiculed as: "Hitler was a vegetarian, therefore vegetarians are Nazis.")
Regarding supposed evidence of "real-life violence motivated by TERF ideology," the website lists six examples. The first three are several decades-old incidences in which groups of women tried to evict transwomen from female-only groups or spaces, using physical force. (Since women are expected to be always nice and passive towards males, even when trying to form radical feminist groups, this is of course seen as unacceptable.) The other three examples don't include any "real-life violence" so it's unclear why they're there. Two of those are about verbal threats (a run-of-the-mill experience for feminists opposing transgender activists), and one is about the deaths of trans people that are assumed to be related to lack of access to health care, which to be very blunt has fuck-all to do with feminist ideologies.
To summarize: there is not a single documented instance of a feminist group going up to a transgender group to assault or threaten them. Any claims of "violence by TERFs" refer either to women trying to evict transwomen from female-only spaces, rarely verbal threats, and lots and lots of fabrication.
The term 'SWERF'
The word SWERF is a close relative to TERF and is applied in a similarly dishonest, misrepresenting way. Women (and men who care about women's rights) who are critical of the sex industry for its exploitative nature are accused of being "sex-worker exclusionary" in an attempt to make them seem hateful towards an oppressed group.
In fact, the people slurred as "SWERF" tend to be supporters of the Nordic Model against prostitution, which sees a high-quality welfare system as a necessary component in tackling prostitution, and in alleviating problems faced by women who would otherwise choose to do prostitution out of economic desperation. Further, many of those slurred "SWERF" tend to be women who worked in prostitution themselves.
Notably, one of the biggest anti-prostitution and anti-pornography feminists Andrea Dworkin was an ex-prostitute herself, and not ashamed of admitting so. Another notable example is Rachel Moran, who was in prostitution between the ages of 15 and 22, only to become one of the most notable anti-pornography activists in recent years.