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TERF (/ˈtɛrf/, also written "terf") is an acronym for "trans-exclusionary radical feminist". Coined in 2008, the term is applied to a minority of feminists who espouse transphobic sentiments, including opposition to transgender rights and the inclusion of trans women in women's spaces, or rejection that trans women are women. While these feminists perceive the term to be a slur, mainstream feminists, other academics, and trans people have rejected this view.

Coinage and usage

Trans-inclusive cisgender radical feminist blogger Viv Smythe (also known as Tigtog) is credited with popularizing the term in 2008 as an online shorthand.[1][2] It is used to describe a minority of feminists who espouse transphobic hatred,[1][3][4][5][6][7] including opposition to transgender rights and the inclusion of trans women in women's spaces and organizations,[8][9] or rejection that trans women are women.[10] While these parties lack influence in mainstream feminism,[11] they are relatively powerful in the United Kingdom, in particular the British press,[12][1][5] and have cooperated with conservative groups and politicians to deny human rights and protections of transgender people.[13][14][15][16]

Smythe first used the word publicly in a post reacting to the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival's policy of denying admittance to trans women. She wrote that she rejected the alignment of all radical feminists with "trans-exclusionary radfem (TERF) activists".[2] In a 2014 interview with The TransAdvocate, Smythe said:

"It was meant to be a deliberately technically neutral description of an activist grouping. We wanted a way to distinguish TERFs from other RadFems with whom we engaged who were trans*-positive/neutral, because we had several years of history of engaging productively/substantively with non-TERF RadFems."[17]

While Smythe initially used "TERF" to refer to a particular type of self-styled radical feminists who are "unwilling to recognise trans women as sisters", she has noted that the term has taken on additional connotations, and that it has been "weaponised at times" by both inclusionary and exclusionary groups.[2]

Writing for The TransAdvocate, Cristan Williams argued that the term references "a brand of 'radical feminism' that is so rooted in sex essentialism and its resulting biologism, it actively campaigns against the existence, equality, and/or inclusion of trans people."[18][3] Writing in The New York Times in 2019, feminist theorist Sophie Lewis used the term "TERFism" to describe anti-transgender feminism in the United Kingdom. Lewis wrote that the term TERF has become a catchall for all anti-transgender feminists, regardless of whether they are radical.[5] Edie Miller, writing in The Outline, said that the term was applied to "most people espousing trans-exclusionary politics that follow a particular 'TERF logic', regardless of their involvement with radical feminism".[1]


Opposition to the word

Feminists who exclude trans women from womanhood and women's spaces generally object to the term TERF. While they explicitly deny trans people's right to self-identification,[1] they refer to themselves as "gender critical" instead,[19][10][20][21] in an effort promote public perceptions favorable of their view.[1] These feminists, mainly second-wave feminists, perceive trans men and women as "traitors" and "infiltrators" to womanhood, respectively.[22] They argue that they cannot be trans-exclusionary because they consider trans men as women[23][24][25]—an argument rejected by trans men.[25][22] In an effort to prove their view that trans women seek to abuse cisgender women,[1] they often characterize the term TERF as a slur or even hate speech,[20][26][27] including mischaracterizing statements or jokes as advocacy or threats of violence.[1]

British columnist Sarah Ditum wrote in 2017 that "the bar to being called a 'terf' is remarkably low."[28] British blogger Claire Heuchan, criticizing University of Cambridge's decision to uninvite Linda Bellos for her statement that "trans politics" sought to assert male power, wrote that the word was often used alongside "violent rhetoric", and the word was used to "dehumanise women who are critical of gender". Heuchan also said the term obscured men as real perpetrators of violence against women and trans people.[29]

In a July 2018 solicitation of essays regarding "transgender identities", British magazine The Economist required writers to "avoid all slurs, including TERF", stating that the word is used to try to silence opinions and sometimes incite violence.[30] In August 2018, seven British philosophers wrote on the website Daily Nous that two articles by Rachel McKinnon[31] and Jason Stanley[32] published in the journal Philosophy and Phenomenological Research had normalized the term. They described the term as "at worst a slur and at best derogatory".[33][10][34]

Responses to opposition

Anti-transgender feminists' claim—that they are not trans-exclusionary because they categorize trans men as women—have been rejected by trans men. Trans men and their allies have called this denial "divisive and contradictory [...] part of their transmisogynist ideology", transphobic, and "fetishistic, often infantilizing".[25][22]

In response to claims that the word constitutes a slur, transfeminist and author Julia Serano has argued that because the word was originally created by radical feminists as a neutral term, it cannot be a slur, and "if the term has since accrued negative connotations, it is simply because most contemporary feminists view trans-exclusion as invalid, and TERF rhetoric as unnecessarily disparaging".[21] Transfeminist YouTuber Natalie Wynn has asserted that the word is not a slur because "it targets bigoted behavior and beliefs, not a type of person".[35] She added that the insistence on the view that the word is a slur is hypocritical because "most of the language used by TERFs is specifically designed to be maximally hurtful, harmful, and insulting to trans people".[36] Philosopher of language Rachel McKinnon has also maintained the word is not a slur, nor even pejorative by itself, because it can be used in a purely descriptive way, while slurs and all derogatory terms are necessarily derogatory in all contexts.[37]

Linguists Christopher David and Elin McCready, writing in a 2018 paper for the University of the Ryukyus and Aoyama Gakuin University, argued that three properties make a term a slur: it must be derogatory towards a particular group, it must be used to subordinate them within some structure of power relations, and the derogated group must be defined by an intrinsic property. David and McCready wrote that the term TERF satisfies the first condition, fails the third condition, and that the second condition is contentious, in that it depends on how each group sees itself in relation to the other group.[38]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Miller, Edie (2018-11-05). "Why Is British Media So Transphobic?". The Outline. Retrieved 2019-05-03. The truth is, while the British conservative right would almost certainly be more than happy to whip up a frenzy of transphobia, they simply haven’t needed to, because some sections of the left over here are doing their hate-peddling for them. The most vocal source of this hatred has emerged, sadly, from within circles of radical feminists. British feminism has an increasingly notorious TERF problem.
  2. ^ a b c Smythe, Viv (2018-11-28). "I'm credited with having coined the word 'Terf'. Here's how it happened". The Guardian. Retrieved 2019-04-13.
  3. ^ a b Dalbey, Alex (2018-08-12). "TERF wars: Why trans-exclusionary radical feminists have no place in feminism". The Daily Dot. Retrieved 2019-01-27.
  4. ^ Dastagir, Alia (2017-03-16). "A feminist glossary because we didn't all major in gender studies". USA Today. Retrieved 2019-04-24. TERF: The acronym for 'trans exclusionary radical feminists,' referring to feminists who are transphobic.
  5. ^ a b c Lewis, Sophie (2019-02-07). "Opinion | How British Feminism Became Anti-Trans". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-05-05.
  6. ^ Bollinger, Alex (2018-12-19). "Famous lesbian site taken over by anti-trans 'feminists'. Now lesbian media is standing up". Retrieved 2019-06-05.
  7. ^ "SNP MP criticised for calling trans campaigners at Edinburgh Pride 'misogynistic'". indy100. 2019-06-24. Retrieved 2019-06-26.
  8. ^ O'Connell, Jennifer (2019-01-26). "Transgender for beginners: Trans, terf, cis and safe spaces". The Irish Times. Retrieved 2019-04-24.
  9. ^ Wordsworth, Dot (2018-05-05). "Terf wars and the ludicrous lexicon of feminist theory". The Spectator.
  10. ^ a b c Flaherty, Colleen (2018-08-29). "'TERF' War – Philosophers object to a journal's publication 'TERF,' in reference to some feminists. Is it really a slur?". Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved 2019-04-12.
  11. ^ Flaherty, Colleen (2018-06-06). "By Any Other Name". Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved 2019-05-06.
  12. ^ Hines, Sally (2018-07-13). "Trans and Feminist Rights Have Been Falsely Cast in Opposition". The Economist. Retrieved 2019-05-02. Despite strong historic and contemporary links between many sections of feminist and trans communities, the anti-transgender sentiments expressed by some leading journalists and amplified through the use of social media are extremely problematic. While anti-transgender feminists are a minority, they have a high level of social, cultural and economic capital. Within these narratives, trans and feminist rights are being falsely cast in opposition.
  13. ^ Vera, Elena Rose; Greenesmith, Heron (2019-04-02). "How Conservatives Are Using 'Feminism' to Fight Against LGBTQ Equality: A calculated alliance based on transphobia is fueling the fight against the Equality Act". The Advocate. Retrieved 2019-05-06.
  14. ^ Michaelson, Jay (2016-09-04). "Radical Feminists and Conservative Christians Team Up Against Transgender People". The Daily Beast. Retrieved 2019-05-06.
  15. ^ Fitzsimons, Tim (2019-01-29). "Conservative group hosts anti-transgender panel of feminists 'from the left'". NBC News. Retrieved 2019-05-06.
  16. ^ Holden, Dominic (2019-04-02). "Republicans Are Trying To Kill An LGBT Bill In Congress By Arguing It Hurts Women". BuzzFeed News. Retrieved 2019-05-06.
  17. ^ Williams, Cristan (2016-05-01). "Radical Inclusion: Recounting the Trans Inclusive History of Radical Feminism". Duke University Press.
  18. ^ Williams, Cristan (2013-09-24). "You might be a TERF if ..." The TransAdvocate.
  19. ^ Goldberg, Michelle (2015-12-09). "The Trans Women Who Say That Trans Women Aren't Women". Slate. Retrieved 2019-04-12.
  20. ^ a b Vasquez, Tina (2014-02-17). "It's Time to End the Long History of Feminism Failing Transgender Women". Bitch Media. Retrieved 2019-04-13.
  21. ^ a b Serano, Julia (n.d.). "TERFs". Retrieved 2019-04-21.
  22. ^ a b c Erickson-Schroth, Laura (2014-05-12). Trans Bodies, Trans Selves: A Resource for the Transgender Community. Oxford University Press. p. 568–569. ISBN 978-0199325351. Some feminists have perceived transmasculine people as traitors—that is, as women who identify politically with men. When inclusive of trans men, these feminists have often gendered them as women. Conversely, these feminists have tended to perceive transfeminine people as infiltrators of womanhood and of women's space. Many commentators refer to feminists who think in these ways as 'trans-exclusionary radical feminsts' (TERFs). ...'The fetishistic (often infantalizing) embrace of trans men by lesbian communities is ungendering, othering, and transphobic.'
  23. ^ Flaherty, Colleen (2018-08-29). "'TERF' War – Philosophers object to a journal's publication 'TERF,' in reference to some feminists. Is it really a slur?". Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved 2019-04-12. Allen objected ... 'most radical feminists who are apparently described' by the term TERF are inclusive of trans men, and so are not 'trans-exclusionary' anyway, she said.
  24. ^ Kennedy, Natacha (2016-12-15). "Anti-Trans Activism – Not What It Seems". Progress. Retrieved 2019-04-29. Beyond that, it's also entirely inaccurate, radical feminism is inclusionary of trans men (who are female by birth), it only excludes males—as a female liberation movement ...
  25. ^ a b c Wylder, Danelle; Westing, Corrie (2018-08-21). "Terfs Have No Place on the Left". Socialist Worker. Archived from the original on 2019-05-03. Retrieved 2019-04-28. It is worth noting, however, the divisive and contradictory position they held, wherein trans men were allowed on the land because TERFs considered them 'women-born' as part of their transmisogynist ideology.
  26. ^ Compton, Julie (2019-01-14). "'Pro-lesbian' or 'trans-exclusionary'? Old animosities boil into public view". NBC News. Retrieved 2019-03-19.
  27. ^ Goldberg, Michelle (2014-08-04). "What Is a Woman?". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2015-11-20. TERF stands for 'trans-exclusionary radical feminist.' The term can be useful for making a distinction with radical feminists who do not share the same position, but those at whom it is directed consider it a slur.
  28. ^ Ditum, Sarah (2017-09-29). "What is a Terf? How an internet buzzword became a mainstream slur". New Statesman. Retrieved 2019-04-13. On the other hand, if you are a feminist, the bar to being called a 'terf' is remarkably low. Woman's Hour presenter Jenni Murray achieved it by writing an article in which she pointed out that someone born and raised male will not have the same experiences of sexism as a woman; novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie likewise made the grade by answering 'transwomen are transwomen' when asked whether she believed that 'transwomen are women'.
  29. ^ Heuchan, Claire (2017-10-06). "If feminist Linda Bellos is seen as a risk, progressive politics has lost its way". The Guardian. Terf stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist. Online, it often it appears alongside violent rhetoric: punch a Terf, stab a Terf, kill a Terf. This language is used to dehumanise women who are critical of gender as part of a political system.
  30. ^ "Transgender identities: a series of invited essays". The Economist. 2018-06-29. Retrieved 2019-03-19. In the interests of fostering open debate we have set ground rules, both for essays and reader comments: use the pronouns people want you to use, and avoid all slurs, including TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist), which may have started as a descriptive term but is now used to try to silence a vast swathe of opinions on trans issues, and sometimes to incite violence against women.
  31. ^ McKinnon, Rachel (2018-03-07). "The Epistemology of Propaganda" (PDF). 96 (2). Philosophy and Phenomenological Research: 483–489. doi:10.1111/phpr.12429.
  32. ^ Stanley, Jason (2018-03-07). "Replies". 96 (2). Philosophy and Phenomenological Research: 497–511. doi:10.1111/phpr.12427.
  33. ^ Weinberg, Justin (2018-08-27). "Derogatory Language in Philosophy Journal Risks Increased Hostility and Diminished Discussion". Daily Nous. Retrieved 2019-03-19.
  34. ^ Allen, Sophie R.; Finneron-Burns, Elizabeth; Leng, Mary; Lawford-Smith, Holly; Jones, Jane Clare; Reilly-Cooper, Rebecca; Simpson, R. J. (2018-09-24). "On an Alleged Case of Propaganda: Reply to McKinnon" (PDF).
  35. ^ Robinson, Nathan J. (2018-05-06). "God Bless ContraPoints". Current Affairs. Retrieved 2018-07-17.
  36. ^ Wynn, Natalie (2019-03-30). "Gender Critical / Contrapoints". YouTube. Retrieved 2019-04-21.
  37. ^ McKinnon, Rachel (2017-05-24). "Trans 101 #4: 'TERF' is Not a Slur". YouTube. Retrieved 2019-04-22.
  38. ^ Davis, Christopher; McCready, Elin (2018-11-19). "The Instability of Slurs" (PDF). Semantics Archive. Retrieved 2019-04-24.