A lot of trans-exclusionary radical feminists (aka TERFs) do not like being called TERFs and consider it a slur, even though it accurately describes their anti-trans (aka transphobic) views and beliefs. However, rather than question whether they should be organising to undermine trans rights and equality they often come up with new language that sounds a little ‘softer’ and makes their transphobia seem a little more palatable. So we get the term ‘gender critical feminist’ instead. In this post I will explore a few of the ‘arguments’ ‘gender critical feminists’ put forward for undermining trans rights and equality. Much of this is a summary of the video by ace Youtuber, ContraPoints – do have a watch (below), she’s much funnier than I am!
First things first, all feminism is gender critical – gender norms and conventions are analysed, as are power dynamics between different genders. Meanwhile, different forms of feminism have different goals – e.g. some might want to eliminate gender while others wish for an increased range of gender categories. But none of this is transphobic and trying to sneak transphobic views in under the umbrella of being ‘gender critical’ is disingenuous and deeply harmful (much like how racists rebrand racism as ‘race realism’ as ContraPoints observes). These transphobic views are usually based on a binary, biological and essentialist understanding of gender – i.e. that there are two genders, male and female, which are determined by the chromosomes and reproductive organs we have.
Thus, ‘gender critical feminists’ view trans people through this binary and reductive lens. So, for many ‘GFCs’ trans women are actually men in women’s clothes worthy of criticism. These criticisms include wearing clothing that’s ‘too feminine’, thereby perpetuating patriarchal standards of femininity; or appearing too ‘masculine’ and thus failing to meet the rights standards of femininity. Trans women can’t win either way and find themselves on the receiving end of prejudice disguised as a critique of patriarchy. The simple truth is that no one has the right to police how someone else appears and/or dresses. Trans people deserve the right to self-expression just like everyone else and liberating any group of oppressed peoples liberates us all.
‘Gender critical feminists’ use terms such a ‘trans ideologues’ and ‘trans orthodoxy’ to imply their is a homogenous group of trans people trying to make everyone trans or threatening children or just waiting to get into women’s toilets to commit acts of violence against cis women. Thereby, an association grows between these deceptively simple terms such as ‘trans dogma’ and the broader stereotypes that are used to dehumanise and harm trans people. Remember when J. K. Rowling criticised the use of the term ‘people who menstruate’ in an article on Devex and said the word should be women. However, Rowling’s comments ignored trans men and non-binary people. So, an attempt to use more inclusive terminology was tarnished as an effort to repress cis women and was connected with this broader anti-trans narrative that trans people, especially trans women, are a threat to other women. However, no trans-inclusive feminism would expect a cis woman to stop calling herself a woman and the article even spoke of the “girls, women, and gender non-binary persons [who] menstruate”. Rowling’s implication that women were being erased was actually an act of transphobic scaremongering. Regardless of whether one strives for a world without gender or one of gender abundance, feminism entails the championing of all women and this, of course, includes cis women. The existence of trans people is not an assault on cis people. Trans identities are not a threat – the threat remains the huge amount of violence perpetrated in the name of patriarchy.
ContraPoints focuses on other ways that ‘gender critical feminists’ weaponise issues around male privilege, reproductive oppression, gender stereotypes and gender metaphysics to further entrench their transphobia. Ultimately, she notes that all transphobia stems from the same place – visceral disgust. This isn’t rational even though it’s ‘rationalised’ in all sorts of horrible ways. Just like homophobes are disgusted by the sight of two men kissing, for example, so transphobes are disgusted by the existence of trans women. Likewise, they may well be disgusted by the sight of a trans man or even angry that he’s ‘betrayed’ his ‘true’ gender, i.e. female. I would add that transphobia (and queerphobia in general) also stems from fear, e.g. a fear of cis men misapplied to trans women who are inaccurately seen as men; or even the fear of oneself (many straight men fear they may be somewhat attracted to other men and take this fear out on gay, bi and queer men). It’s a sad old story and the endless abuse of this disgust and fear is setting human rights back decades and causing untold harm to trans people around the world, as well as bolstering support for far more extremist and terrifying worldviews.
I realise in describing people as TERFs over and over again, as I have done in this post, it may seem like I am dehumanising them and reducing them to their prejudice. However, just as with the terms racist, sexist, homophobe and transphobe, I think it’s important to have terminology which makes visible people’s prejudices, so they can be held to account for them. I also think it’s important to resist and criticise efforts to rebrand prejudice to pass it off as something more acceptable. When it comes to TERFs and ‘gender critical feminists’ the end result is still the on-going verbal, legal and physical assault of trans people. And even if a TERF might decry the use of physical violence their views facilitate it. A further irony is that TERFs will decry the use of the term TERF as an offensive slur while continuing to misgender trans people and refusing to acknowledge their existence and humanity. Prejudice is the real problem here, not the term being used to describe someone’s prejudice. Imagine if someone said they were ‘race critical’ or ‘Judaism critical’ or ‘women critical’ – we would immediately know we’re dealing with prejudice and bigotry. The same is true for this transphobic brand of ‘gender critical feminism’.