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Acronym Decoded
What Is a TERF?
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Kayla Heisler
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TERF is an acronym that stands for trans exclusionary radical feminist. The term was developed to differentiate the subset of radical feminists who believe that gender and sex are the same from the general population of radical feminists who believe the opposite. While the general population of radical feminists accepts trans women as being women, TERFs do not, and many TERFs express a desire to keep women-only spaces as spaces for women only, by which they mean only for cisgender women.

Background and history of trans exclusionary radical feminism 

Writer Viv Smythe, who coined the term TERF in 2008, stated in an interview with The Guardian that the term, “came about simply to save typing a longer phrase out over and over again — a shorthand to describe one cohort of feminists who self-identify as radical and are unwilling to recognize trans women as sisters, unlike those of us who do.”

However, as the term as become more and more visible in the feminist lexicon, some women who have been described as TERFs have felt that the term has become a misogynistic slur that is used against women rather than a descriptor. Smythe responded to the idea that TERF is an intentionally negative label during an interview with The TransAdvocate by explaining that ‘feminist’ and ‘radical feminist’ have both been used a slurs as well, though there are many who choose to self-identify with these terms. Smythe makes a point to clarify that the conception of the term was not to say that all radical feminists are trans-exclusionary, but a subset are. Those who may be described as TERFs sometimes prefer to be called gender critical.

A number of feminists and feminist constructed events have excluded or attempted to exclude trans women from taking part in feminist discussions and gatherings. The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which was held every August from 1976 until 2015, asked that only “womyn-born-womyn” attend. In 1991, trans woman Nancy Burkholder was told to leave the festival after someone recognized that she was not cisgender.

In 1979, radical feminist Janice Raymond published The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, which argued that “transsexualism” reinforced gender stereotypes and that trans women did not belong in the feminist movement. A year after publishing The Transsexual Empire, Raymond authored a report for the Reagan administration that called for legislation that limited medical and surgical treatment for trans people.

Radical feminists Cathy Brennan and Elizabeth Hungerford wrote a letter to the United Nations in 2011 advocating members to oppose laws prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity and gender expression. Though social media platforms can  help amplify the voices of marginalized people, unfortunately it can also be used against them. Many TERFs continue to advocate against rights for transgender and non-binary people on social media platforms such as Twitter, even targeting individuals and their families with threats and harassment. In 2013, for instance, Brennan sent a letter to trans activist Emily Horsman's doctor stating that Horsman was harassing her online before publishing the doctor's name on Twitter.

Radical feminism definition and history

Radical feminism is the philosophy that calls to reorder society and eliminate all forms of male supremacy. Radical feminists are often skeptical of political action because the systems in place already favor men, and prefer to concentrate their energy on creating cultural change that would lead to a change in power structures.

The radical feminist movement was created after second-wave feminists who participated in the anti-war movements and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s were excluded from positions of power by men working in the movement, and many of the women went on to form their own groups that used their original political ideals and methods but applied to feminism. Initially, groups focused on raising awareness of women’s oppression.

In 1968, radical feminists protested the Miss America Pageant to draw attention to women’s objectification. The following year, a split occurred within New York Radical Women, and the women who left officially referred to themselves as ‘radical feminists’ and created a new organization called Redstockings. In 1970, a group of 100 women stormed into the office of Ladies Home Journal to protest because the magazine, which was led by men, featured limited views of womanhood. Following the 11 hour sit in, the group was allowed to produce a section of the following month’s issue, and senior editor Lenore Hershey was promoted to editor in chief  3 years later.

Though theories of radical feminism continue to persist, the radical feminist movement itself declined in terms of activism and direct protests as third wave feminism began in the mid 1970s, which was a movement that focuses more on inclusivity of marginalized women.

What is transgender identity?

Transgender is a broad term that refers to folks who express their gender in ways that are not congruent with their assigned sex at birth. Sex is assigned at birth because of physical attributes, and gender is the spectrum of characteristics that differentiates between masculine and feminine based on social structures.

A gender transition involves a person aligning their physical appearance with their gender identity, though not all transgender people choose to undergo gender-affirmation surgery, hormone therapy, and/or cosmetic surgery. Gender identity refers to a person’s deeply held sense of their gender, which unlike one's gender expression, is not visible to other people.

Gender identity differs from sexual orientation, which describes a person's physical or romantic attraction to another person. Gender identity describes who a person is; sexual orientation describes who they are attracted to. For example, a transgender man who is only attracted to women would likely identify as a straight man while a transgender woman who is only attracted to women would likely identify as a lesbian woman.

People who are transgender and non-binary are at risk for assault, discrimination, hate crimes, and mental health issues as a result of society's prevalent transphobia, so advocating for protections including inclusive legislation and access to health care, shelters, and mental health resources is extremely important.

Always respect the terminology a person uses to identify their self, and if you accidentally use their incorrect pronoun, apologize and correct yourself without calling excessive attention to your error. You can help set an inclusive tone while running events and meetings by including your pronouns in your introduction and inviting others to do the same to avoid having anyone be misgendered.

For more information regarding transgender identity and resources, check out the National Center for Transgender Equality.

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Kayla Heisler is an essayist and Pushcart Prize-nominated poet. She is a contributing writer for Color My Bubble. Her work appears in New York's Best Emerging Poets 2017 anthology.

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