I have no control over how others use a word that came about simply to save typing a phrase out over and over again
Wed 28 Nov 2018
Recently my colleagues discovered that I happen to have a peculiarly niche level of internet notoriety because I used to blog a lot. It was a critique of a strong strand of transphobia in British media referencing a trans-ally piece I wrote a decade ago that clued them in. Due to a short series of blogposts from 2008, I have retrospectively been credited as the coiner of the acronym “Terf” (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists). I suspect I’m merely the first person who wrote it on a website that still exists – I wonder how many Elizabethans already used words now attributed to Shakespeare long before he (or the Jacobean actors whose annotated Folio transcripts are the earliest extant versions) incorporated them in a play?
It was passionate trans women activists online whose strong advocacy of their right to exist as women in the world showed me just how dehumanising the trans-hostile rhetoric is from some radfems about them. Yet as a cis-het woman with a mainly digital activism history, I have been credited while contributions of dedicated trans inclusion advocates such as Lisa Harney to those discussions have been overlooked. The pseudonyms common back then do complicate attributions, but it’s also an ongoing problem in this feminist discussion – it’s rarely been trans women who are handed the microphone to voice their own experiences, although social media has meant they they could build their own platforms, have their concerns heard, and some at least addressed.
The Guardian’s own Opinion pages on transgender issues outline the divisions regarding trans-inclusion advocacy vs trans-critical hostility, proving once again that feminism is no monolith.
I do find the renewed interest over the last few years in writing of mine from a decade ago disconcerting. The Terf acronym has long since left that particular discussion (and me) behind, and been weaponised at times by both those who advocate trans-inclusion in feminist/female spaces, and those who push for trans-exclusion from female-only spaces. I have no control over how others use a word (as it has now become) that came about simply to save typing a longer phrase out over and over again – a shorthand to describe one cohort of feminists who self-identify as radical and are unwilling to recognise trans women as sisters, unlike those of us who do.
So how did I come to be writing about transphobia and trans-exclusion in the first place? Because I was running a Feminism 101 FAQ blog with a tight focus on factual information.
As that blog gained first an audience and then a community, non-FAQ posts began to appear. Then I was sent a blurb promoting an event associated with the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival [Michfest]. I posted it and then rapidly edited with disclaimers that should have been there from the start as commenters sent me on a rapid learning curve regarding trans-exclusion issues both specific to Michfest and in general. I later posted An Apology And A Promise on that blog, following a post on my primary blog, which seems to include the earliest instance of “Terf” online:
implicitly aligning all radfems with the trans-exclusionary radfem (TERF) activists, which I resent”
I also mentioned another term which didn’t catch on, perhaps at least partly because it was less ambiguous about who exactly was being described:
After a bit more reading, I think the trans-exclusionary set should better be described as TES, with the S standing for separatists. A lot of the positions that are presented seem far too essentialist to be adequately described as feminist, let alone radical feminist.”
For most feminist cis women considering the rights and safety of trans women rarely intrudes upon our feminist practice until somebody wants to exclude trans women from our spaces and expects us to agree. That’s when we realise women we know have very different reactions to the question of whether to include trans women as part of our sisterhood, or deny their womanhood and exclude them.