Words to Reject: TERF

Many radical feminists (if you’ll temporarily excuse the phrase) have “reclaimed” this word. But you can’t reclaim a word that was never yours. This word was coined by our opponents and gives too much credit to the entire flawed framework within which it arose (more on that here). The word confuses bystanders. It makes us look fringe. It associates us with rumors of hate and violence, which third parties may not know whether or not to believe. But perhaps most importantly, it’s simply inaccurate.

To see why, let’s look at each part of this acronym (which, as you probably know, stands for “trans-exclusionary radical feminist”).

Trans – The existence of the word “trans” in this acronym gives away our power right out of the gate. We are feminists: people who care about the rights of females. We aren’t defined by our relationship to trans people any more than we are defined by our relationship to sharks.

The word “trans” here also implies that we hold some position or other in relation to all trans people and only trans people. But the contentious position is a position about males. It isn’t a position about trans people as such.

As the oppressed class (females), we have opinions about the oppressor class (males). Our opinions about males (cross-dressed and otherwise) are different from those we hold about females (cross-dressed and otherwise). The “quarrel” (for lack of a better word) that led to the coining of this term is one started by entitled males, not by female-born trans people. So-called “trans-exclusive” events (like Michfest) exclude male people, not trans people.

Exclusionary – The word “exclusionary” implies, by design, that we are guarding the door to something just to be mean. But if the something is womanhood, then it’s not radical feminists who are denying access; it’s biology and reality. And if the something is a women’s festival, then it’s denied to all men (not just the cross-dressing ones) and usually open to all women (including the cross-dressing ones). And most of us don’t run women’s festivals, anyway, so most of us aren’t in the position to exclude anyone from them. Nor do women, on balance, hold the kind of power in business or politics or public life to deny other things to men. So we are not denying anyone access to anything.

The word “exclusionary” itself is additionally problematic, apart from whether or not it can be used to describe us. The word “exclusionary,” as opposed to the more common English word “exclusive,” is associated with the rhetoric of transgender ideology. And we concede too much ground when we play on our opponents’ playing field. “Exclusionary,” by design, has a negative connotation. “Exclusive” has a positive connotation. If I have an exclusive meeting with my friends, no one’s going to fault me for that. But if I have an “exclusionary” one, suddenly I’m being a jerk. It’s illegitimate to imply, via this odd form of a common term, that there’s something nefarious about holding events for specific people with specific interests.

It is not bad or “exclusionary” to hold (for example) a feminist meetup without inviting male people. We don’t say someone’s being “friend-exclusionary” when they go to a family gathering or “family-exclusionary” when they go to a work gathering.

Radical Feminist – “Radical” feminist, as opposed to just feminist, is a marked word. By using it we concede that we’re a weird faction of feminists instead of simply feminists. But feminism is still feminism even if some have bastardized it and marched for opposing causes under its name.

We should not give up the word “feminist” to fake feminists any more than we should give up the word “woman” to fake women.

Additionally, “radical,” though it means “root” in this context, is read by many as “extreme.” That connotation can confuse third parties who’ve heard rumors associating us with hate and violence, which they may legitimately be unsure whether or not to believe. More on why we should reject the phrase “radical feminist” here.

Reality Check: Everyone Agrees with Us

One of the effects of being labelled “terfs” or even “radical feminists” is that it perpetuates the myth that our views on biological sex are extreme or in the minority. This is why I advocate rejecting those words.

Nobody denies the “womanhood” of “trans women,” opponents like to say, except “terfs” and conservatives.

That is simply incorrect. Consider:

  • Both liberals and conservatives on the Supreme Court demonstrated their belief that Aimee Stephens, the funeral home employee who was fired for being transgender, was male and experienced discrimination based upon clothing expectations for males, as clearly articulated in their recent decision.
  • Until ten or twenty years ago, the mantra (much less the idea) that “trans women are women” didn’t exist. You wouldn’t have been able to find a person of any stripe who even pretended to believe such a thing, including (or perhaps especially) in the transsexual/LGBT/queer communities. If you could go back in a time machine to your high school days and repeat some of the claims transgender activists make today with a straight face, you’d be laughed out of the room. Or–no joke–committed. Because reality is a thing and denying it used to be recognized as mental illness.
  • People in much of the world outside of certain “woke” areas of the US and other wealthy countries find the claim that people can change sex absurd and openly say so. Many of them are too busy trying to avoid walking into gunfire or dying in childbirth to even put this frivolous non-issue on their radar. Trans people’s pronoun preferences are a first-world problem.
  • People who have never followed this debate, even in the aforementioned “woke” areas, don’t believe the claim either. Many folks don’t keep their noses buried in social media, clickbait, and “queer” culture, and are shocked and dismayed when they first hear that such absurd ideas have gained traction.
  • Old-school female trailblazers in the fight for women’s rights, whether or not they call themselves radical or even feminists, know better. See tennis legend Martina Navratilova and Miriam Ben-Shalom, the woman who challenged the military’s anti-gay policy in 1980.
  • Gay men aren’t down with this either. Because they’re often sociable, they play nice and they say the words they’re asked to say. But they’re homosexuals and in the end they aren’t interested in debating what that means.
  • Many, many transgender people disagree with the current rhetoric, including psychologist Anne Lawrence, comedian Eddie Izzard, detransitioners who feel they were harmed by it, and almost all old-school gay transsexuals who came out young and have had surgery. Current activists label the latter, the predecessors of their own movement, with the slur “truscum” for not climbing on board with outrageous claims about the nature of sex.
  • So-called trans people in other countries, including the “travesti boys” of Brazil and the Hijra of India, do not believe they are literally women. The phrase “third sex” is prevalent for such people around the world.
  • Your dad doesn’t think trans women are women. Do you think you could fix your dad up with a trans woman if your dad became single? Straight men don’t think trans women are women. Some might say they do, but when it comes right down to it, they like pussy.
  • Moderates, like conservatives, aren’t even pretending to buy it. A huge segment of the world is politically moderate and not all of these people are dicks. Some are decent people who hold conservative fiscal views or really liked Ronald Reagan or worry about social stability or just vote the way their parents did.
  • Here are some more people who don’t even feel like pretending: J.K. Rowling. Ricky Gervais. Ru Paul. Rose McGowen. Boy George. The writers for South Park. The writers for Family Guy.
  • Even the people who say “trans women are women” don’t believe that trans women are women. If pressed, they’ll admit it’s a semantic concession that is performed in the interest of being nice and signaling liberal/tolerant views.
  • Basically everyone knows that a “trans woman” is a type of man, not a type of woman.

So who believes “trans women are women?” Some trans people do, despite what a feat of cognitive dissonance that is. That’s the power of dysphoria. These seem to be mostly white, mostly affluent, mostly straight male people who engage heavily with social media.

Who pretends to believe it? Their friends.

The apparent dominance of the view that “trans women are women” comes from a vocal minority on social media who has too much time on their hands. Since people who say otherwise are de-platformed, we’re not hearing from people who say otherwise, either because they’re self-censoring or they’re being censored. And remember, people will torture other humans and electrocute puppies when they feel intense pressure to agree with something.

It turns out it doesn’t take a highly specific or extreme philosophy like a weird branch of feminism to recognize the existence of sex.

We are not extremists. People who think that people can literally change sex are extremists.

Who Owns the Playing Field?

A cultural debate is raging about whether women’s and girls’ rights should be subordinated to men’s rights whenever men identify as women.

Currently, our opponents have home field advantage because they built the field. They characterized us as “anti-trans” instead of pro-female. They sabotaged Michfest and then blamed the conflict on us.  They invented words centered on transgender interests and got us to legitimize them by using them. They convinced social media that we hold fringe views instead of common and reasonable views. They took our focus away from the rights of women and girls and refocused us on the concerns of trans people. We took the bait. We now talk about autogynephilia and pronouns more than we talk about reproductive rights and keeping girls in school.

The field they’ve built is made of circular reasoning, threats and jargon. We need to play on a different field–one in which we have the advantage. That field is honesty, bravery and plain language. Our home field advantage is truth and clarity.

To win this debate, we must first refuse the terms and conditions of the debate as it currently stands; these were set up by our oppressors. To that end, we should reject not only the words invented by “their side” (like “cis”) but also the words invented by “our side” in direct response to them (like “TRA”).

Here’s why: when we create our own words–words that no one else uses–specifically for the purpose of refuting absurd arguments, we grant validity to those absurd arguments–and we show our willingness to work within the framework in which they arose. But the framework is faulty and it needs to be discarded.

Imagine a group of respected geologists runs into a group of angry young-Earth creationists. In reality, the scientists would likely pay the creationists little attention, especially in the public sphere.

Imagine if instead of blowing off young-Earth creationists as irrational, geologists invented words for them like, I don’t know, GEDRAs (geology-denying religious activists), and then used these words in science documentaries and television shows. Bystanders would wonder, quite correctly, why the geologists would waste their time. Scientists have the upper hand against religious quacks. Scientists have truth on their side. Unless the scientists feel threatened, and they shouldn’t, they’ve no need for this “GEDRA” business. It exposes an insecurity on their part. It would be better if they spent their time advancing geology instead of getting in pissing matches with its detractors.

So it is when we create words like “TRA.”

A much better approach would be to speak in plain language and to insist on plain-language responses. This disarms the people who can’t explain themselves and strengthens those who can, which works in our favor.

We must reject jargon, even if it’s ours.

Jargon reinforces rumors that we belong to a fringe faction of feminism with murky values.

It makes it difficult for disinterested third parties (unfamiliar with these debates) to follow what we’re saying.

It allows both sides to sidestep meaningful debate and rely on semantic trickery and obfuscation instead.

It gives the power back to the oppressor, as he’s setting the terms of the debate and we are letting him.

And much it appears mean to bystanders. Being mean is against our best interests.

Think about whether you can defend the claims you wish to make with plain language. You can (especially since everyone already agrees with us). Now think about whether your opponents can defend their claims without relying on poorly-defined in-group language and repetitive mantras. They cannot. Their jargon serves to cover up, deflect and confuse. And it works.

Using plain language is the intelligent, professional and poised thing to do. Using in-group language obscures our message and makes us look petty and peripheral.

Words to Reject: Radical Feminist

Perhaps you’ve heard of the linguistic concept of “marked” words. People say “female doctor” but not “male doctor” because it’s assumed that most doctors are male–the male doctor is just the “regular” doctor while the female one is the anomaly. Here, “female” is marked. Likewise, people say “male nurse” but not “female nurse” because it’s assumed that most nurses are female.

When we call ourselves “radical feminists” instead of just “feminists,” we concede that we are a special weird faction of feminists. We concede that the other feminists, the ones some call “liberal feminists” but who generally call themselves simply “feminists,” are the standard kind.

But that is both incorrect and a tactical error on our part. “Feminism” has a meaning. It is those other feminists, not us, who have abandoned feminism. We want women’s liberation. Those who defend practices which enslave women, such as the porn industry, depart from feminism. We want to work for the collective good of women. Those who favor individual expression over an analysis of patriarchal oppression depart from feminism. And those who have not read and will not read the foundational works of their predecessors (second wave feminists), because they’ve been told not to, are the ones who betray the movement they purport to belong to.

Feminism is still feminism even if some have bastardized it and marched for opposing causes under its name. We should not give up the word “feminist” to fake feminists any more than we should give up the word “woman” to fake women.

We are not a special kind of feminists to be compared to the “regular” feminists, and we should not allow ourselves to be labeled as such. We should simply call ourselves “feminists.”

If someone gets confused about where our positions fit in among all the other positions being called “feminist,” good! We should infiltrate fake feminism with real feminism, not allow fake feminists to infiltrate and indeed take over a movement that is rightfully ours.

Of course, “radical” in this context means “root.” Radical feminism is feminism that examines the roots of women’s oppression. If we find it necessary to modify the word feminism to call out this distinction, which we argue will occur infrequently, we recommend using the term “roots feminism.” This prevents opponents and bystanders from believing or pretending to believe that the “radical” in “radical feminism” means something like “extremism” (which they are wont to do).

And yes, we know the word “rad” is in the URL of this site, but we needed to get your attention.

More on words we should reject here and here.