The Trans Versus TERF War Explained
The battle between two ideologies done as dispassionately as I can
If you’ve been following the news media in the UK, you will undoubtedly have met the Transgender vs TERF war being raged in the media.
The TERF side will argue that transgender people are trying to infiltrate women’s spaces and are a danger to women and that a small plucky group of women are standing up for women of all kinds.
Transgender people will argue that trans women are women and this should not be up for debate, since being a trans woman is not something that can be controlled or changed, and if you want to get rid of transgender people, why not just try eugenics? Also, what about the trans men and how come we keep ignoring them?
The debate is a bit tricky to deal with and it has some nuances that get lost. As someone who grew up in the kind of communities that TERFs come from, but then transitioned anyway, I’m probably in a good spot to answer them.
This is as dispassionate a guide as I can make to the whole argument, why the sides have the positions they do and why we’ve ended up more or less where we have.
Feminism, 80s style
Growing up in the 80s and into the 90s, radical feminism entered the scene with its second wave. This argued in many different forms that gender was a social construct.
This set the stage for many things. It set the stage for people to express their gender differently. It also allowed useful scientific research that investigated the counter-argument to men and women being intrinsically and indivisibly different, pointing out that many studies looking for these differences were flawed and inaccurate, which needed doing.
A particular subset of people used that freedom greatly to not only express their gender differently and more freely, but to actively transgress, to express the gender of the opposite side, or those in between. Some even said there was no such thing and never had been.
This freedom gave a host of marginalised people a new lease on life and made things possible for them that didn’t exist before.
Enter the Trans Movement
Radical feminism has always had to contend with enemies in the conservative and religious spheres, who regard it as a natural evil, but soon after radical feminism was being articulated, transgender people came along and articulated that radical feminism was wrong. Not only was gender not a social construct, it was definitely hard-coded in people and it could not be changed.
People were born with a hard-coded gender in their brain and no amount of wanting it to be different would allow it to change. Suddenly, from a surprising quarter on the inside, radical feminists came under attack over their beliefs and it seemed that transgender people were saying that the conservative religious people had been right all along.
Transgender people demonstrated, at least on the surface, that changing sex was possible and that people could lead happy and fulfilled lives as the opposite sex. Meanwhile, conservatives rejoiced both at being right and having another minority they could oppress, if they wanted to.
On a brief description of the two camps, because of the focus on whether gender is innate (in the brain) or socially caused (constructed), you can instantly see we have what is known as a logical binary here. If one is right, the other must be wrong.
Some radical feminists rallied around the evil transgender incursion and became TERFs (Transgender Exclusionary Radical Feminists), radical feminists who opposed transgender people and their ideas of innate gender and the way they were threatening the hard won gains that feminism had made for those who benefitted.
Also, although this seems like a modern niche issue, this isn’t actually that modern a debate, since gender is part of a bigger debate, usually one of the first that even slightly educated people are exposed to when dealing with The Big Questions. That debate is the Nature versus Nurture debate. It’s probably not hard to see that transgender people take the Nature side, while Radical Feminists take the Nurture side, when discussing the topic of gender.
Since most people are asked to debate Nature versus Nurture in school, congratulations, you probably already have an opinion on this debate and may work in a field which really has an opinion.
And of course, we can’t forget the political equivalent of the Nature versus Nurture debate: right versus left! You definitely have an opinion on this one… If you are waiting with baited breath for the inevitable triumph of Capitalism/Communism (please delete as appropriate), then you subscribe into the Nature versus Nurture debate by proxy, since Nature supports inequality and social Darwinism while Nurture supports culture and equality.
The Inevitable Victory of (Please Insert Here)
Although this binary seems pretty clear and resolute and allows us to look forwards to inevitable victory of one side over the other, there are a few problems that crop up in this debate.
The first comes from transgender people themselves. It turns out that transgender people really, really don’t fit gender stereotypes. When you’re trying to change sex, you would think fitting into gender stereotypes would be a useful way of cuing the world into who you are. Alas, no. There aren’t statistics about this because they aren’t collected, so you’re going to get a community estimate, but it seems as if about half of transgender people end up not wanting to conform with the stereotypes of the sex they are transitioning to.
Meanwhile, on a parallel strand, gay people exist, and have been theorising about themselves since they had rights (well, before that too, but we don’t really seem to talk about that…).
In the 80s, (the proverbial) everyone knew that gay men minced and were feminine and lesbians were butch, masculine people wearing combat boots. Unfortunately, that didn’t quite work for a lot of people. For one thing, when you date people all of the same sex, then which gender roles (if any) either of you take becomes an open question and being butch isn’t exactly feminine, while mincing really does in your masculinity.
Meanwhile, there were camp men and butch women who let the side down a bit. You see, they were great and the apparent mincing and being butch bits but terrible at the really important bit of being gay, sleeping with the same sex. Some of these people were happily married in long term relationships.
For many in the LGB spaces, gender roles became as hard-coded into a person’s personality as was sex, and some viewed these traits as innate, creating new and exciting terminologies to describe the different types of people and combinations that could happen (butch and femme being an example of the UK lesbian sphere, but Tom and Dee being a Thai variant).
Equally, sometimes heterosexual people would also assert that their gender roles were innate, and exceptional, causing them suffering and distress from not fitting into a society made for different people.
All of these caused problems for a lot of people. I’m going to ignore how the other groups reacted in favour of transgender people, who did what transgender people do best, overthought this stuff and theorised!
From the San Francisco lesbian community came Julia Serano, who basically took everything together and synthesised a Grand Unified Theory of Queerness that kinda works and keeps working. Like democracy, it’s literally the worst model bar any other that has been tried and keeps being expandable to new groups, (like asexuals and non-binary people) which is amazing.
The Intrinsic Inclinations Model, as you’d expect from something that came from the LGB community, had sexual orientation, gender roles and sex identity built into it, with internal versions in the brain and external versions that you socially constructed or expressed through biology.
Transgender people looked at the whole debate and went “Why choose one, why not have… Both!”
Ah, yeah, this model is super inclusive and says everyone is correct, at least a little, which is super disappointing for all the people who want a nice clear winner. Educated transgender people started spreading this model since the 2000s and most people hold some slimmed down version of it which end up in internet graphics (gingerbread person 2.0), YouTube channels (e.g. Contrapoints) and newspaper articles that cover transgender people well.
Models in other movements have also converged close to the transgender position, and you can see convergent evolution doing its best to show that this is a good place to be, and the transgender position slots nicely into the non-binary movement as well.
This approach also ties in with movements in the sciences to tackle the Nature versus Nurture debate as more Nature via Nurture and ties in with more third-way political movements as well which mix right and left.
Revenge of the TERFs
As with any good model, a lot of people decided they didn’t like it and it threatened everything they built. After all, why have a nuanced sensible model that allows everyone to live together when you can bend everyone to your will! Plus everything is simpler, and isn’t it nice when the world is simple and doesn’t have 117 types of gender?
In the UK, an unholy alliance of TERFs, disaffected LGB people and religiously minded conservatives decided that they could remove transgender people from the conversation, making everything a little bit easier and simpler for all of them, and created the gender critical movement in the process.
The gender critical movement likes to portray itself as defending women, which it does sometimes, since some women who are leaders in that movement have achieved things for women’s rights and deserve respect.
However, in exchange for funds, the TERF movement and the disaffected LGB people allowed religiously conservative people to oppress transgender people with the added bonus of looking like they’re standing up for minority rights. This is great in an era when just being homophobic and sexist doesn’t play well, but you need minorities to pursue and demonise.
In return, radical feminists and LGB people get to be on the giving end of more fascistic solutions to their problem of transgender people, and nothing says you have arrived as a group so much as advocating for the power over another group and making it clear that you’re not afraid to use it should that group not shut up, behave and stop complicating precious freedoms won hard.
The calculus that produced the gender critical movement in the UK changes as you move into other places.
On one extreme, you can see the alliance between the religious conservatives and transgender people in Iran, where because transgender people are not specifically excluded by the Koran and the traditional transgender narrative blends well with religion, transgender people are prioritised over other groups. This is the kind of dystopian future that TERFs talk about existing in the UK already, where LGB people are force-transitioned and where all transgender people obey stereotypes.
In the USA, however, LGB rights and feminism do not enjoy the firm place that they do in the UK. As a result right wing religious conservatives view transgender people as merely one of the great LGBTQ+ panoply that needs stamping out, and the latest and perhaps most dangerous ideology coming from progressives who seek to overturn social rules stretching back centuries. Meanwhile Hungary has achieved what Republicans can only dream of right now. Transgender people cannot legally transition, but feminists are also persecuted (and the teaching of gender studies is banned).
The State of Play Now
In the UK right now, the current place that transgender people exist in is a strange one.
Thanks to two acts, the Gender Identity Act 2004 and The Equality Act 2010, transgender people are broadly protected and have a certain minimum level of rights that allow them to function and enjoy broad public support, plus it feels like the LGB community want to make up for its treatment by preventing harm to transgender people (e.g. in Parliament and through the leading LGB charity Stonewall).
However, transgender health services have never been well funded and waiting times are ridiculous, while various equalities watchdogs and positions are slowly being captured by the TERFs and pushed to issue anti-trans guidance.
In the media, the right wing press (Times, Telegraph, Daily Mail) vilifies transgender people while the TERFs have captured the Guardian and the Economist. The BBC, the UK national broadcaster, releases dramas containing and supportive of transgender people showing them as real people, then savages transgender people in the news in the name of bias. Only the Independent and Pink News have vaguely sensible reporting.
And the topic of sport remains a vexatious one, where the absence of evidence allows all groups to project whatever they want freely in the absence of evidence, leading to some really interesting decision making. This is despite transgender women competing in women’s sports for a decade and failing to win anything.
In the meantime, the gender critical movement has moved from gender as a social construct to a physical biology-only model, where having had a uterus at any point means you’re a woman, and intersex people are, well, we don’t talk about them for some reason…
In the UK, transgender rights feel like they could go either way.
Should the current trend continue, it’s not impossible that transgender people might wake up in the kind of dystopia they have nightmares about, where the gender critical viewpoint is forced on them and negative policies, ranging from mildly inconvenient to outright damaging, become the norm. Even small changes can have damaging impacts for transgender people as they access care and hold down jobs.
On the other hand, even a small change such as a slightly more sympathetic government would allow transgender people to live in peace for a while, free from persecution and it would take only a few positive changes to remove transgender people as an active topic entirely from the debate.
And as for the far future, should transgender people be protected, would they join the Circle of Hate and oppress those non-binary and asexual people who make our lives difficult by saying things like there is no gender? Not all transgender models need to be intersex, non-binary or asexual inclusive, though they can be, and if nothing else, watching once marginalised communities become the new oppressors shows that no one is safe from the path of hate once they have the security of a few rights.