In April, the House Judiciary Committee held its first hearing on the latest iteration of the Equality Act, federal legislation that would enshrine sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes under federal civil rights law. Support for the Equality Act, first introduced in its current form in 2015 by Representative David Cicilline, has grown to encompass high profile Democrats like Hillary Clinton, who said in 2016 that passing the Equality Act would be her “highest priority” if elected, as well as corporate behemoths like Apple, Google, and Nike. With the fight to legalize gay marriage won, groups like the Human Rights Campaign have thrown weight behind the passage of the Act.
Included on the Judiciary Committee’s speakers list was Julia Beck, a 26-year-old lesbian, self-described radical feminist, and a member of the group Women’s Liberation Front, or WoLF. But Beck was not there to testify in support of the Equality Act. Invited by Republican members of the committee, she was there to decry the protections that it would provide trans women. “If the act passes in its current form as HR5, then every right that women have fought for will cease to exist,” Beck asserted.
Beck is the latest trans-exclusionary radical feminist, or TERF, to become the darling of right-wing media and conservative politicians who, in recent years, have cloaked their transphobia by embracing the talking points of radical feminists like Beck. These seemingly odd bedfellows united publicly during the Equality Act hearing, where Republicans like Doug Collins and Louie Gohmert voiced their opposition to the Act in the name of women’s rights. The Equality Act, Gohmert said, represented “a war on women that should not be allowed.” Collins, an opponent of gay marriage and abortion rights, spoke approvingly of WoLF, before charging that the bill’s protections of trans people “would demolish the hard-won rights of women, putting them once again at the mercy of any biological man who identifies at any moment as a woman.”
TERF ideology at its core is simple and bigoted: trans women are not women, and their demand for inclusion, and even their very existence, is a danger to women. Beck and others like her are not a new phenomenon—while the term TERF dates to 2008, their ideological underpinnings go at least as far back as the 1960s, to the advent of the women’s liberation movement and in particular to a strain of political lesbianism that staunchly advocated for separatism.
Recently, Beck has become one of the most prominent and recognizable figures in the movement. At the end of 2018, she was kicked off of the Baltimore mayor’s LGBTQ Commission over her belief that trans women are not women, making her, in her words, the “most hated lesbian in Baltimore.” Shortly after, she appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show to discuss her ouster from the commission and to reiterate her claim that trans women threaten the safety of what she terms “biological females.”
“When we get down to it, women and girls all share a biological reality,” she told a sympathetic Carlson. “We are all female. But if any man, if any male person can call himself a woman or legally identify as female, then predatory men will do so in order to gain access to women’s single-sex spaces, and this puts every woman and girl at risk.”
The April hearing for the Equality Act was the second time in as many months Beck has testified before Congress—in March, Collins invited her to speak at a hearing on the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), where she had again repeated her belief that including trans women under its protections would, in fact, harm women. “VAWA was created for women and girls. Not for those who feel like or identify as female,” Beck stated.
Beck’s ideology has found a natural home in WoLF. Founded in 2014, the organization, in its own words, fights for “the total liberation of women” and “to end male violence, regain reproductive sovereignty, and ultimately dismantle the gender-caste system.” But for all of the talk of women’s rights, and despite the current assault on abortion rights led by Republicans (to name just one example) that would seem a more natural target of their ire, the bulk of WoLF’s activism has been obsessively limited to only one issue: fighting the expansion of trans rights, in the name of preventing the spread of what the group derides as the postmodern concept of “gender identity.” In their opposition, they have aligned with conservative, largely Christian rightwing activists and elected officials, who have their separate, reactionary reasons for wanting to maintain the notion that there is a strict dividing line between man and woman and who have, similarly, reframed the debate about trans rights as one about “safety for women and girls.”
In January, the Heritage Foundation’s notoriously homophobic and transphobic Ryan T. Anderson relied on members of WoLF to help him discredit the Equality Act, inviting Beck and WoLF board members Kara Dansky and Jennifer Chavez to participate in a panel titled “The Inequality of the Equality Act: Concerns from the Left.” (WoLF, it should be noted, has almost no connections to what most would describe as leftist movements, yet it is repeatedly described as a “representative of the left.”) “Everything is about the T now, entirely eclipsing the L, G, and B. The T is diametrically opposed to the first three letters of the acronym, and especially to the L,” Beck said. She added: “The completely illogical statement that trans women are women is recited like a Big Brother mantra in every leftist space,” but for Beck, “female sex is the only qualifier of womanhood.” (By Beck’s own essentialist logic, then, trans men are women.)
Dansky, the former legal counsel for the Americans Civil Liberties Union, raised a question. “Who would be against equality?” she asked. But the Equality Act, she warned darkly, “would utterly obliterate female-only spaces throughout society.”
Before the Judiciary Committee, Beck, her face a stony mask, a small group of her supporters dressed in red behind her, echoed Danksy, rattling off a list of alarmist scenarios that she believed would be ushered in by the passage of the Equality Act: