Slomka: TERFs present a danger

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EMERSON SLOMKA, Opinion Columnist

In Dec. 2019 author J.K. Rowling expressed support via twitter for Maya Forstater, who was fired for her series of tweets criticizing the United Kingdom government plan to allow citizens to declare their own gender—it was the start of a long descent into controversy, criticism and a polarized following.

Since the posting of the tweet last year, Rowling has continued to use her platform to criticize transgender people, often posting more about her opinions on the transgender community than she does about her work or personal life. Her claims have been met with heavy criticism, causing Rowling to lose a substantial part of her following and to even face criticisms from actors starring in films based on her books. In response, Rowling released an essay on her website explaining herself and expressing that her “gender critical” standpoint had led her to be labeled a “TERF”—a “misogynistic slur” in her own words. While this was likely many people’s initial exposure to the term “TERF,” TERFs are a constant reminder to many transgender people that even those who mean well can be misled by fear and outrage.

The acronym TERF stands for “trans-exclusionary radical feminist” and refers to a subset of radical feminists who reject the concept of gender and believe that transgender people are either mentally ill, predatoryor driven to transition to escape homophobia or criticism for being gender-nonconforming. Most who fall into this category prefer the term “gender critical,” but critics often consider this akin to white supremacists referring to themselves as “race realists”—it’s a misleadingly-gentle phrase. As previously mentioned, an integral part of TERF philosophy is the rejection of modern gender philosophy and metaphysics and the belief that biological sex is the only valid distinction. TERFs often hold the belief that trans men transition to escape misogyny and that trans women transition to assert “male privilege” and invade women’s spaces. Unsurprisingly, this means that TERFs often focus their outrage on transgender women, while considering transgender men to be victims of
the patriarchy.

While the TERF mentality is undoubtedly harmful, most TERFs aren’t intentionally malicious—their gender-critical outlook often comes from prior harmful, dangerous and abusive experiences with men, which leads to a psychological need for a more rigid, sex-based view of the world, where men and women can be completely separate. This is best represented by the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (aka Michfest), which has attempted to serve as a safe space for women, but while excluding non-cisgender women in the process. The exclusion and criticism of transgender people is not only scientifically baseless; it perpetuates abuse and harmful stereotypes.

It has been accepted within the scientific community that sex and gender are two distinct concepts—sex refers to one’s biological attributes, such as chromosomes and genitals, whereas gender refers to one’s identity, behavior and socially-constructed roles. While TERFs believe that gender is indistinct from sex, this belief has been disproven by modern science and gender studies, and the belief that biological sex determines privilege (or a lack of) is simply incorrect. While TERFs hold the belief that, since a transgender woman is biologically male, she has male privilege, there are two social outcomes for her, and neither give her privilege; either she passes as a woman, and is therefore subjected to misogyny like any other woman, or she doesn’t pass, and is therefore met with transphobia. In either case, the trans woman will not be perceived as a “normal man.” As a passing transgender man, however, I do have male privilege, as I’m perceived as a male, regardless of my assigned sex.

Another area of criticism from TERFs is that transgender people enforce gender stereotypes, such as transgender women often having long hair and wearing feminine clothes in order to pass. However, transgender Youtuber ContraPoints dissects this belief in her video, ‘Gender Critical’:

“…in the same breath, these same TERFs will argue that trans women are mannish, unfeminine perverts who are forcing masculinity into female spaces. If trans women being feminine is bad, and trans women being masculine is bad, then there really is no way that trans women could behave that TERFs would accept.”

While Rowling may have good intentions involving the protection of women, in reality, she’s only excluding and demonizing an already marginalized group of women. The TERF philosophy is rooted in a baseless fear of transgender women, who are statistically more likely to be victimized than to be dangerous.