TERF Wars: Addressing Transphobia in UK Feminism
Denin Lawley via Unsplash. Image licence found here. No changes were made to the image.

That ‘woman’ is not a neatly homogeneous category has been a pillar of third wave feminism since the nineties. The movement recognised that gender equality cannot be advanced if women are considered as a singular entity; instead, women must be seen as what they are: multi-dimensional human beings shaped and defined by much more than their given sex. 

Consequently, few are likely to contest that experiences of womanhood differ in relation to race, sexuality, religion, ability, and class. Or even that within these divisions, the lived experiences of each woman varies greatly on an individual basis. However, recent discourse among some ‘feminists’, now commonly referred to as ‘trans exclusionary radical feminists’ or ‘TERFs’, has seemingly overlooked this. Instead, the fictitious ‘universal woman’ has been conjured to try and justify the exclusion of trans women from popular feminism. 

J K Rowling

The obvious example is  J.K. Rowling, who – for no discernible reason – has taken to espousing various transphobic arguments on her Twitter page. It began with a tweet hailing women as synonymous with “people who menstruate”. Not only did this invalidate trans women, but equally overlooked the fact that a host of conditions, including menopause, stop menstruation from being common even among cis women. It is therefore unclear on what terms Rowling wishes to conflate women into one uniform mass. 

Additionally, Rowling’s transphobia has made its way into her latest novel, published under the pen name Robert Gailbraith. The plot sees a cis man dressing as a woman in order to attract and kill female victims. In a review, the Telegraph concluded that the moral of the story was to “never trust a man in a dress”. From an author who has previously insinuated that trans womanhood is a “costume” or “an idea in a man’s head”, the transphobic subtext of this book is evident. Perpetuating the idea that trans women are indistinguishable from violent ‘men in dresses’ only encourages greater fear and suspicion towards the trans community, contributing to the danger that they face. Rowling’s position is not new: the Netflix documentary Disclosure discusses the long history of transphobic narratives in media, as well as the material consequences this inflicts on trans people. Rowling’s decision to publish this novel, in the wake of her extensive press attention surrounding trans discourse, therefore seems like a deliberate move to push her agenda further, in addition to boosting sales.

However, Rowling has found support from fellow author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In 2017, Adichie argued that trans women should not be considered in the same category as cis women because they were previously raised with “male privilege”. This is an argument devoid of much nuance. Adichie erases the fact that not all trans women are able to transition at the same point in their lives, and that their relationships with masculinity will differ between individuals. Adichie also fails to consider whether male privilege can really be called a ‘privilege’ when being imposed upon trans women. Laverne Cox, prominent actress and activist behind Disclosure, reflected on Twitter that male privilege had actually felt more like a policing of her identity: “though I was assigned male at birth I would contend that I did not enjoy male privilege prior to my transition”. 

Further, Adichie’s comments appear to dismiss the double discrimination of misogyny and transphobia facing trans women, concurrent with factors such as race and class. With the murder of trans people (particularly women of colour) increasing exponentially each year, protestations of male privilege feel, at best, profoundly tone deaf. Rather than dismissing trans issues out of hand, a more feminist approach should surely seek to fight for trans women’s safety with the same passion as for cis women.

The Gender Recognition Act 2004

Rowling and Adichie’s arguments are being echoed by several trans exclusionary ‘feminist’ women’s groups. In the UK, recent debate has raged over reforms to the Gender Recognition Act 2004 – reforms that the government chose to reject this September. Instead of being able to self-identify, trans people will still need a dysphoria diagnosis, and to have lived as their correct gender for two years, before they can be issued with a gender recognition certificate. Getting a diagnosis requires a person to prove to a doctor that they are ‘sufficiently trans’, and also means facing potentially lengthy waiting lists for gender clinics. Further, withholding legal gender recognition for two years leaves trans people at unnecessary risk of being outed. While the extortionate £140 price tag is being dropped, the sustained limitations are a victory for these women’s groups seeking to exclude trans women from ‘female spaces’. 

These groups, such as Women’s Place UK, argue that single-sex spaces (domestic abuse services, public toilets, and prisons, for instance) should be legally allowed to exclude trans women in the name of feminism. They interpret this feminism as the protection of biological women against violence and encroachment from men, a category in which they also lump trans women. Not only is their use of language openly transphobic, their argument appears fundamentally misguided. 

Fears around trans people being able to self-identify largely centres around the assumption that the system would be abused by men seeking to harm women, as Rowling believes. However, the Republic of Ireland, where self-identification is legal, has found no evidence of this occurring. Moreover, if ‘female spaces’ are necessary to prevent violence and sexual assault from men, the blame should not lie at the door of trans women. Male violence against women is undisputedly a serious issue that needs to be stamped out. However, as such violence currently occurs without men pretending to be trans, it is illogical that self-identification laws would make any difference. If a man is going to commit a violent crime against another person, the legality of entering a certain space is unlikely to stop him. Ending male violence will therefore only be achieved by tackling societal rape culture and holding perpetrators accountable. It will not be achieved by making broad generalisations that punish trans women for simply existing. 

In-fighting amongst women is arguably the biggest barrier to equality that we face. The ‘othering’ of trans women breeds hatred and mistrust, leaving them even more vulnerable to attack. Such division only serves to detract from the true roots of patriarchal oppression, which we are blind to recognise when distracted by such harmful discourse. It is infuriating to see so many so-called feminists determinedly missing the point of the movement. If no basis for universal commonality among cis women can be found, there remains no credible argument for the exclusion of trans women from feminism. Of course trans and cis women do not experience womanhood in the same way: no two women do. That’s the whole point of intersectionality.