My Name is Ivy, and I Might Be A TERF
Perhaps it's time to retire a label which seems to signal 'Outgroup' more than anything else.
For those blissfully unaware of the term TERF, it stands for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist. As for what it is? That’s sometimes a bit harder to figure out. Much like the dreaded label of transphobic, it’s sometimes an accurate label based on hate or discrimination, and sometimes somewhat bereft of substance and functions mainly as a bit of tar and feathering.
Before getting into the substance I have for you in this post, I want you to consider the significance of the title. My name is femme enough that you might conclude I am a cis woman, may also be inclined to agree with the TERF label based on some of my past comments on trans issues:
transwomen have XY chromosomes
after bottom surgery, what cis women and transwomen have are functionally different
there should be a wider conversation on who gets to define what ‘woman’ means
If you did happen to know or assume I was actually trans, you would might stop short of calling me a TERF. At most, you would probably do a bit of copy/paste from general feminist rhetoric and say that I have internalized transphobia.
The point to the above is that it’s not so much what is said, but what your perception of the identity of the person that’s saying it that matters, and that’s the problem. This problem was self-evident in the backlash to Dave Chappelle’s comments on LGBTQ+ issues in his comedy specials. It was not so much about what Dave was saying, but that he was not transgender.
His car analogy was accurate, if perhaps a little clumsily delivered. Bisexual hate is a known thing in LGBTQ+ circles. The ‘LGB Alliance’ is a group that specifically seeks to exclude trans people. Queer people do sometimes wear outrageous clothing. None of this was particularly contentious. Firewalls have been slowly created, even in areas like comedy, about which groups can talk about whom. For the most part these have not been overly contentious, but we are now at the point where race and gender are colliding. That’s a separate issue from most of what I’ll write about here, and I bring it up mostly to highlight that the issue isn’t confined to trans people or what constitutes a TERF.
If we look beyond the sexier culture war flashpoints like Chappelle and go a little deeper, the main underlying issue of contention is that we have broadly redefined what the word ‘woman’ means. During the height of the feminist blogger era, what is now said in some public spheres was mainly only said in private because you certainly did not want to be accused of being transphobic. Now, perhaps due to that environment, it’s said more publicly with support from celebrities and other people with ‘fuck you’ social capital if not money.
It’s easy to just demonize even the reasoned elements of this pushback, but we really have to be honest about what has happened in many social spheres: The definition of a foundational concept such as gender and/or what ‘woman’ means has radically been rewritten, without the explicit consent of all natal women. Whether you regard the pushback as justified or not, it should most certainly not be unexpected.
So You’ve Been Called A TERF
Accusations of TERFititude being slung around so often as to start to lose meaning, and this can start to introduce irrelevancy into its impact. That you may or may not be a TERF depending on your trans status also has a dilution effect. To really understand these two issues, we have to look back at a time when trans acceptance was at its peak.
That time would have been roughly around 2014, the most recent peak of gender and sexism when it comes to culture war discourse. As I mentioned during my open mic segment at Hereticon, the bill for the antics of people like Brianna Wu and Jessica Yaniv is now coming due. Legitimate TERF’s were going to hate trans women regardless of whether they had walking stereotypes to rely on. I do not believe, however, the trans pushback would have come so soon be so large as it is were it not for all of the ridiculousness that came out of that era.
It was largely verboten, for example, to refer to the fact that Brianna Wu was transgender. Many privately viewed this as a so-called activist claiming cis privilege that was largely unavailable to many when they had a platform that could have been used for things other than personal enrichment. That many would never make this reference in public, however. If one squints, Brianna Wu might even be viewed as a TERF in a sense excluding other transwomen by so intentionally obfuscating the fact that she is trans.
During that era, dialogue about who gets to define what ‘woman’ means was viewed as un-necessary and instead decrees were made. Now, that dialogue is still not happening with the important difference that we now have opposing factionalized decrees versus one broadly summarized by the #transwomenarewomen hashtag. Outside of the culture war, there are real consequences in broad areas like media and health care, and more practical ones like whether it’s worth the risk to use a bathroom aligned with your gender expression in certain parts of the world.
Is Transitioning Too Easy?
The medical process of transitioning was exceptionally easy for me. I emailed Trans Care BC, was provided with the names of 2 doctors, and in a month or so I was taking my first dose of estrogen. The legal process was almost as easy, but perhaps a bit more annoying given the bureaucratic hoops I was required to jump through to get things like a birth certificate and passport changed. That was mostly due to being born in another province than where I currently reside however.
Is this process too easy? Not if the only alternative is having to express your gender for a year and have bottom surgery, those are ridiculous burdens to place on someone who is transitioning. I also don’t know what the point of compromise is between them (psychiatric evaluations are easily gamed).
Another rather TERF-y take I have is that there should be some bare minimum level of effort that people put into their transitions. This is more or less the thought behind earlier gatekeeping regimes that required bottom surgery before legally allowing one to change their gender marker. This is, as I mentioned, far too high of a burden.
I have gender dysphoria because I was born male, and have known for a long time that the parts of me that matter do not feel what most define as male. This did not automatically guarantee I would end up as a binary femme transwoman. The contentious question is really that in that undefined middle period, should I be able to attain the legal status of a cis woman? That’s not a question I intend to answer here, but one that you should be able to ask. Independent of whether I am cis or trans, does asking it make me a TERF?
These more philosophical issues aside, another reason I was prompted to make this post was because of the connection that is often made between TERF’s and hate speech, transphobia, and other calls for what the collective ‘We’ should be allowed to say. I have often swung wildly between two perspectives based on this, and the best comparison I can draw is to a particularly good episode of Star Trek.
The Pegasus and Gender Politics
In an episode of Star Trek : The Next Generation, Commander Riker is eventually forced into making a choice between loyalty to Picard and the principles of the Federation, or loyalty to a former commander. Throughout the episode he steps gingerly between both, but at one point is forced to make a choice.
Ever since coming out, I’ve felt that same pressure. When you’re a member of the alphabet mafia, there’s a certain expectation of political alignments and values. Falling somewhere on the axis of oppression, transgender people should automatically endorse certain things, and shun others. Ever since March of 2020, I’ve stepped gingerly between two worlds, but like Riker I no longer have the luxury of doing so.
It’s a hard choice. In my former life, I was somewhere between anarchist and libertarian, and vociferously argued for the lane of freedom of expression. That argument is now largely kind of pointless as digital spaces fracture and segment. To that person, ‘Hate Speech’ was just some wordplay for a slippery slope of censorship.
In this one, I’ve personally seen and felt what oppression is. Some of the fear I feel is more associated with the pandemic, but much is also associated with the realities of being visibly transgender. An attempt on my life in the fall of 2020 drove home the point that even for someone as privileged as I, it’s still dangerous to engage in many activities others take for granted.
Privilege is also a way I’ve been straddling both lanes. Privilege is most certainly a thing, but also a thing that is often used in bad faith arguments about who deserves what, and how to take things away from others rather than level the playing field. It’s also a great way to subsume issues impacting all LGBTQ+ people in the current ecosystem of racial politics. To say that I’m more privileged than some classes of cis people in general is absurd, but that’s what has been decreed as unassailable dogma in some circles.
What’s Transphobia, Actually?
We also have to ask what transphobia is. There is a pretty reasonable definition as far as hate solely on the basis of being a trans person. Trans people being excluded from the same legal protections that all others have is a pretty clear example. Are ‘bathroom bills’ transphobia? That’s a bit more of a grey area, but it’s also a very interesting topic that involves the ‘I don’t feel safe’ veto used in a very unusual manner.
The ‘I don’t feel safe’ veto has often been used in the past to justify exclusion of controversial members in spaces on the basis of making others uncomfortable. I use the word veto because it’s often very hard to argue against someone feeling uncomfortable. The first example I can remember was Curtis Yarvin being excluded from Lambaconf, and there have been many others since.
Bathroom bills are essentially the same thing; some are saying that they don’t feel safe around trans people, particularly in bathrooms. Much like codes of conduct that are implemented elsewhere, law and regulation are being created to exclude others from these spaces. These concerns are generally absurd, yes, but the root thought process behind it can be traced back far beyond the past few years of trans social policy.
Going back to the start of this post, many might call any one of those bullet points ‘transphobic’. I don’t think the people, myself included, who make those observations are particularly afraid of trans people being a thing. It’s probably also true, that accusations of homophobia may have been applied liberally in the past. Some rhetoric around transphobia is very much a copy/paste from past discussions on gay and lesbian rights.
My act of straddling these lanes has mostly been due to either being in a rational place or an emotional place. Rationally, as much as I would prefer to never read some commentary on trans issues by people who are not trans, those discussions should not be forbidden. They will happen somewhere, whether it’s merely in someone’s internal monologue or in a private setting somewhere. It’s better they happen in the open.
I become emotional when I read something that particularly pushes my buttons. I watch my fingers type things like transphobia and TERF. I’m not even sure that in those moments, I really believe that some objectively true expression is really transphobic, but I do know that what I feel in response to it is real. This is perhaps hypocrisy, but also a natural reaction which I hope people won’t hold against me too much.
The sledgehammer of a transphobia accusation is no longer as big as it once was, and it was certainly wielded incredibly recklessly by some, so it might just be better that it’s gone (to a degree). I understand, completely, why these levers are used and are necessary. Marginalized people are on uneven footings with systems of power, so they have to use whatever tools are available. These levers have made some incredible gains, but I do somewhat fear that those gains come with certain costs that we are now seeing materialize when it comes to things like trans acceptance.
To be clear, this is not going to be some love letter to the likes of JK Rowling. There are plenty of bad faith actors, and that’s kind of the point I’m trying to make here. When you forbid dialogue, it’s a ripe opportunity for those with means and motives to craft the sole forum(s) of discussion.
More practically, we are far away from the peak of the feminist blogging era, as the current social discussions center almost entirely around race. The mob screaming ‘TERF’ or ‘Transphobia’ doesn’t hit the same way it used to. Legitimate transphobes have become more clever with their rhetoric, and now often use the unassailable topic of race to perpetuate legitimate hate and shove trans people back in the closet (or further).
I can’t say exactly when I noticed it exactly, but I became exceptionally uncomfortable when it was clear that we had entered the stage of dogma when it comes to discussing certain things. ‘Why is this transphobic’ was not a question, but heresy. This has led to an interesting dichotomy in media, trans people being sacred cows in the West (although this is slowly changing), and in the UK the BBC (among other outlets) have a decidedly anti-trans slant. Both of these are rooted in the same issue of social sensitivity making one perspective easier to advance than the other.
All of this being said, what is the ‘correct’ choice? Social policy shouldn’t bereft of emotion, but it equally should not be upended by its cascade. Much like Riker, the choice is between loyalty (to a group in this case) or commitment to principles.
Choosing A Lane (Finally)
So, the lane I’m choosing is the same one that I chose in a former gender, which is freedom of expression. You, dear reader, should be able to ask some fairly basic questions or make some basic observations. They may not be the same ones I am inclined to make, but the alternative is allowing whatever culture take gets the most retweets to become de-facto policy.
This, unfortunately, does also extend to the bad faith actors. Graham Linehan is a remarkable example of a cis person with far too much time on their hands, but he should be as free to publish on this platform as I am.
Shooting at the proverbial mosquito with the equally proverbial machine gun is no longer something that I think is productive in any way. Rather than an ever evolving subjective list on what constitutes ‘transphobia’, more speech (like this post) is far more effective at demonstrating that people like Mr. Linehan are just weird attention seekers exploiting the latest flashpoint in the culture war.
Freedom of expression rather than commitment to dogma is also something that would help to resolve some problems before they get a chance to take hold. In articles on Jessica Yaniv’s embarrassing saga with beauty salons, legal experts gingerly step around the spectacle of that case with phrases like ‘unfortunate facts.’ They should be free to talk about the facts plainly, but I do know why they don’t feel free to. What I don’t know specifically is why the trans community is so poor at calling this kind of behaviour for what it is, but I do know that removing the Jessica Yaniv’s from serious discussion on social policy is needed.
Coming Out (Again)
It’s perhaps quite ironic that I feel more anxious about this post than my original coming out post. I also wonder if there’s really a point. Does this ‘discourse’ even matter? I’m not sure that at this moment it does, but it will eventually flow downstream to policy makers. And those policy makers might be a tiny bit less inclined to post bouncers in bathroom doorways checking for the ‘F’ on an ID if the options available to them aren’t as binary as they are now.
Perhaps the best way to close is to resolve the question posted in the title of this post. My name is Ivy, and I am probably a TERF to some only because there’s no other category to put myself in.
In our current reductive, polarized atmosphere, operating in opposition to even minutiae of what’s accepted in some circles puts you in the ‘other’ category. I often get DM’s from other trans people who say they agree with many things I’ve mentioned in this post, but are hesitant to post in public lest they also be put in the ‘other’ category.
Hopefully, though, we can eventually move our way to reasoned discussion and social policy. There is some middle ground to be had, and I believe we can create a society that can include both trans and cis people. Not just on the basis of ingroup barely tolerating outgroup, but allowing both to thrive without turning everything into grievance politics.
Will we see a discussion entitled ‘Who gets to define what a woman is?’ at whatever the next venue for thoughtcrime might be? Perhaps, perhaps not. I do know, however, that an incredible amount of the friction on social policy when it comes to trans people is wrapped up in this question. It’s really not a surprise things are trending in the direction that they are, and the sooner it’s acceptable to ask that question in public, the better.