What does 'TERF' mean, and why has J.K Rowling been labelled as one?
Updated: Oct 19, 2021
You may have heard the word 'TERF' circulating on the internet, with some public figures labelled as such on social media or by other activists. But, what does this term mean and is it a derogatory phrase that we should refrain from using?
In this article, we'll look at how the word 'TERF' is being used, by whom, in what context, and the effect the phrase has on various human rights movements
How was the term 'TERF' coined, and what does it mean?
The term 'TERF' is an acronym meaning Transgender Exclusionary Radical Feminist, and it was initially coined by a feminist blogger named Viv Smythe around 2008. Smythe used the phrase to describe a subgroup of radical feminists that didn't view trans women's rights equally to the rest of women's rights in the feminist movement.
Smythe had witnessed discrimination against transgender women at a feminist music festival in the US state of Michigan and included the phrase in some old blog posts detailing the experience. Smythe documented how the trans women who sought to enter the festival were turned away for not being 'real women,' thus, launching backlash and debates between advocates within the feminist discourse.
The word 'TERF' is now used to describe any person who believes that trans women's rights should be omitted from the feminist movements and frameworks or that trans women's rights are not as valid as those of cis women.
Is TERF a derogatory phrase or slur?
Jennifer Saul, the Chair of Social and Political Philosophy of Language at the University of Waterloo, states that although TERF is not intended to be derogatory or a slur, it can be construed that way because the word is typically combined with anger and retaliation.
However, according to linguists Christopher Davis and Elin McCready, the word doesn't qualify as a slur because it isn't used to "subordinate [a group of people] within some structure of power relations, and an intrinsic property doesn't define the derogated group."
Many people labelled as a TERF still view the term as a slur and don't necessarily identify as one. Instead, they consider themselves as 'gender-critical', but activists argue that they are given the TERF label for failing to recognise that trans women's rights are equal to the rights of cis women.
What do TERFs believe?
Ultimately, TERFs aim to define what makes a woman and believe that biology plays a significant role in shaping the female construct, thus affecting who the feminist agenda can, or cannot, apply to. TERFs tend to view trans women as a completely separate group with needs different from cis women because they weren't "born into the same struggles as women".
Many also believe that anyone assigned male at birth will continue to have some form of male privilege, even beyond a gender transition. These beliefs aren't new to the feminist discourse but are becoming more prevalent as trans movements are growing in prominence.
Many people labelled as TERFs will counter-argue pro-trans activists by stating that they don't wholly exclude trans women's rights from feminist discourse because they include trans men's rights as women's rights. They also argue that the label has become synonymous with transphobia, or fear of trans people, and isn't wholly accurate. Some people labelled as TERFs don't identify as anti-trans and claim to support trans rights but disagree that trans rights should be categorised within the feminist agenda, namely due to assumed biological differences.
According to Jennifer Saul, this argument doesn't make TERFs particularly trans-tolerant because the ideology "holds people against their will in a category they reject". Such beliefs can also be problematic because they continue to delegitimise trans identities and undermine the prejudices trans people will face as a result.
Who has been labelled 'TERF' and why?
Many public figures have been labelled as TERFs, usually based on their social media posts, beliefs, and public stances on particular issues. Some of the most famous figures called a 'TERF' include J.K. Rowling, author of the well-known Harry Potter series.
In 2019, J.K. Rowling was called a TERF in response to a social media post supporting Maya Forstater. Forstater was working at the Centre for Global Development on a temporary contract. The Centre for Global Development chose not to renew Forstater's contract due to old social media posts that resurfaced, in which Forstater reinforced harmful trans stereotypes and prejudices. Rowling received extensive backlash from pro-trans activists and was labelled a TERF as a result.
After showing her support for Forstater on social, Rowling went on to show support for other TERFs as well, including Magdalen Berns, a famous YouTuber who was also criticised for having transphobic views.
Since then, Rowling hasn't shied away from expressing her opinions on the importance of biological sex when discussing feminism and trans rights and has even been engaged in a so-called 'TERF War' with activists on social media. In June 2020, the author penned an essay on her website detailing her beliefs further and explaining that she supports trans women's rights, but that she doesn't agree with, "women [having to] accept and admit that there is no material difference between trans women and themselves." Later that year, Rowling found herself in hot water again when she released her latest novel titled Troubled Blood (2020). The book centres around a male serial killer that disguises himself as a woman to target his victims. Many activists saw the storyline as harmful to trans women because it perpetuated negative stereotypes about an already marginalised group.
What impact does the term 'TERF' have on the trans community and feminism?
Labelling an individual as a TERF originated from the debate about whether or not trans women should be included in feminist frameworks and if they qualify as 'female.' The word itself doesn't necessarily impact the trans community as much as the ideology that it represents. This debate can be detrimental to trans women and trans movements, mainly because it damages trans identities and recognition.
"feminists should not stand in opposition to one of the most marginalised groups of women" - Jennifer Saul
The separation of TERF and non-TERF feminists can also be harmful to the feminist discourse simply because it distracts the parties from issues that affect anyone who identifies as a woman, such as sexual harassment, domestic violence, or job discrimination. Jennifer Saul also notes that using TERF to label feminists who are "committed to worsening the situation of some of the most marginalised women" can harm the feminist agenda because "feminists should not stand in opposition to one of the most marginalised groups of women."
The trans community already faces disproportionate levels of discrimination, especially when it comes to education, employment, and access to social services and support. By not accepting trans women as real women or 'woman enough,' trans people can encounter even more intersectional discrimination and continue to be marginalised on a grander scale.
How can feminism be more inclusive of trans women's rights?
Saul states that the feminist movements can become more trans-inclusive by focusing on the issues that plague all women, including trans women. Saul notes that for feminism to be more inclusive of trans women's rights, it must first recognise that trans women's rights aren't separate and that trans women are just as marginalised as cis women because of their gender identity.
Feminism can also be more inclusive of trans rights by not setting a standard for what qualifies as 'female' since this will vary from individual to individual and is a definition that has changed over the years. Beliefs about what makes women ranges based on who you ask and in what context, but it doesn't mean that trans women are less female than cis women or that their struggles are less important.
It's also vital that feminist movements be welcoming and inclusive of all the goals that feminists have to enhance women's rights as a whole, whether that be accepting all gender identities or challenging existing restrictive gender norms for social advancements. Integrating trans women's needs and rights in the feminist narrative will also enable further protection for trans people across the spectrum, regardless of how they identify.
Acceptance and inclusion in the feminist discourse can then help accelerate progress for all women, both transgender and cisgender, based on the mutually shared identity of being a woman.
Edited by Christophe Locatelli