I know fighting TERFs is really important to you, and I really admire you, so I wanted to share this with you, because I am hoping it will be helpful. Pardon how long this turned out to be, but I wanted to tell you everything I could think of that might be useful, so, here goes.
I used to be a TERF (a rather prominent one, when I was involved–my username at the time was thesecondsex or something like that, I don’t remember it was a long time ago, and it’s really quite far behind me) and have been away from the group for 2-3 years, and have been actively anti-TERF for about a year now. I only tell you that to give you context for what I’m going to say.
Anyway, I just wanted to tell you that while I don’t think you’re WRONG, I think that one of the things that stands in the way of destroy TERF-ism is calling blanketly-fascist rhetoric ‘terf’ rhetoric.
Let me explain. It was really easy for me, when I was a TERF, to think of myself as a regular old leftist who just loved women more than ‘libfems’, as TERFs call them. I was same-gender attracted and felt uniquely oppressed because of that. (You see I still carry some of the rhetoric even now, but that’s the language they use and how I classified myself. It’s not a surprise to you, I’m sure, that while not all exclusionists are TERFs, all TERFs are exclusionists.) Lots of TERFs are marxists, lots of them are women of color (I’m black) and the anti-racist rhetoric is there. It’s easy to say TERFs are inherently more racist (and there are plenty of racist TERFs) but that’s oversimplifying their viewpoint. All of their bullshit comes from their inherently fascist way of thinking of sex and gender. First of all, to TERFs, sex is obviously dyadic. Sperm fertilizes eggs, sperm come from people with penis and testicles, men, eggs come from people with ovary and uterus, woman. Women are oppressed because they can bear children (see Simone deBouvoir’s A Second Sex, a beloved TERF text–and more proof that TERFs and ‘radfems’ are one and the same. Radfems are just TERFs who won’t say tr*nny, but the rhetoric is the same, and the ideology that backs it is the same.) and so women’s oppression is based on biology. Blah blah blah, there’s more, but that’s the foundation for why they think they are justified in exluding trans women from their definition of womanhood: because women are oppressed because of their biological sex, female, which is being equipped with the assumed-child-bearing-parts. Intersex people are defined as a biological aberration, not that that’s why I think, but that’s how TERFs think. It’s a pretty basic, elementary-school concept of sex and gender, with a bit of 2nd wave feminism sprinkled on top, but they’re just not very educated on the topic of biological sex, period. (More on this later.)
So basically, the point is that TERFs think they’re leftists, and they think they’re oppressed because they are 'female’, so to speak, not because they’re women. Lots of TERFs are GNC, WLW, and don’t feel lots of connection to either cis-ness or woman-ness, which is another reason the picture of them as right-wingers a.) is oversimplistic and b.) means the message goes right over most of them because they dismiss us out of hand when anti-TERF activists assume they’re really 'cis’, because lots of them feel they don’t benefit from cisness the way other 'cis’ women do (they do, obviously, but they can’t see it because sex and gender and sexuality are all tied up together in weird ways that changes from society to society). It also makes lots of young, impressionable WLW scoot that way because they feel that society, and men specifically, are preying upon them. They pass around stories about trans women who maybe don’t pass very well and are arrested for sexually predating upon women to say all trans women are autogynephiles who want to rape women and lesbians, specifically. That’s where all that bathroom stuff comes from… TERFs are genuinely afraid of trans women that don’t pass well because they are genuinely terrified of men, and then trans women that don’t pass are basically men in their eyes, and thus the only reason they could want to be in women’s spaces is to rape them and hurt them. Lots of TERFs have histories of sexual violence with men, and use that to excuse their hatred of men and, by extension of their warped worldview, trans women. It’s fucked up, and obviously requires Olympic-level mental gymnastics to come to these conclusions, but… that’s what they think lol. Lots of rhetoric about raping lesbians, which I can’t really comment on because I’m bi, and thus don’t know what it’s like to be a lesbian and also never had a problem with dating trans women anyway. Lots of rhetoric about 'bihets’ and opposite-gender-partnered bi women being traitors and 'choosing’ men etc etc
Which leads me to the fascism. TERFs are inherently fascist because they hate men. I know lots of feminists get accused of 'man hating’ but TERFs really do, and they are genuinely terrified of them and see them as threats. Lots of the most popular 'fuck men’ posts, no matter how good the post is, come from TERFs. There’s a reason political lesbianism is something that gets tossed around bisexual and heterosexual TERF circles, and it’s because eschewing men is seen as something VERY admirable. TERFs treat men the way that other fascists treat their target group. Some people in the alt-right/KKK are tolerant of self-hating black people, and similarly, some TERFs are tolerant of men and trans women–you’ll even find trans women and trans men and even some non-binary people (talk about cognitive dissonance) in TERF circles, and TERFs (just like the alt-right) love to point to these people as proof that they’re not REALLY fascist.
TERFs also like to say that they don’t want trans people dead, and lots of them probably don’t, actively, want trans people dead. again, this doesn’t matter; they support and hide and protect the ones that do, and their rhetoric and the things they want to achieve do that whether they say they want it to or not, and they know this, but their allegiance to female-ness and sex-based oppression is simply more important. they’ll say this, more or less, in their 'women first’ kind of rhetoric. it’s just dog whistling for 'men and trans women’s lives are worthless
The whole reason they hate trans women is because they think of them as men who are infiltrating feminism, which is, in their eyes, very, very bad. TERFs disagree about how bad this is–some TERFs think trans women are more of a threat than cis men, and some TERFs think cis men are the bigger threat, but because TERFs and trans women have more points of contact (because TERFs think they’re leftists, and thus infiltrate leftist spaces) and because TERFs are, by and large, cis women who oppress trans women, they’re able to do waaay more damage to trans women than they’d ever do to cis men. Also, cis men are TERFs oppressors and thus are able to oppress them. But that feeling of 'men are bad, men are inherently violent, men are inherently rapists, men are inherently, naturally evil and women are inherently, naturally good’ is what makes them so keen on gatekeeping trans women out of womanhood, because they’re rightfully afraid of men, but think the only thing that separates trans women from cis men is aesthetics, because, again, their understanding of sex and gender is extremely lacking.
The reason trans men are rejected is because they’ve basically rejected womanhood. However, TERFs don’t hate trans men and most would gladly accept them into women’s spaces before trans women because to them, a vulva is what it means to be a woman, and lots of trans men have that, so…
So my point in all of this is that I think it obfuscates how TERFs operate, how they infiltrate leftists spaces, and that they ARE fascists to call other forms of fascists speech 'TERF rhetoric’ or to draw parallels between TERF rhetoric and other forms of fascist rhetoric. The whole thing about failing to realize how oppressive and how bigoted something is, I think, comes from an inherent lack of understanding of what fascism is. People really don’t understand what it is, especially young people–and Tumblr is very, very young.
I left TERF-ism because I’m black, really. I couldn’t stomach watching black trans women dying, and I didn’t really see how they were hurting feminism or infiltrating womanhood. All I could see was those women’s victimhood and I couldn’t be a part of that anymore–but even after I stopped associating with those people, stopped reblogging and liking their posts and stuff, I agreed with them, deep down.
It was two things that made me realize, intellectually, that I was wrong, and not just dislike their methodology but disagree with them on a fundamental level.
1.) understanding what fascism was. I knew that other leftists thought I was a shitty bigot, like, obviously TERFs are aware that other leftists hate them and want them dead, but that just makes them feel more oppressed, honestly. The conversation I heard that made me realize I was a fascist wasn’t anything about TERFs, but it was about the definition of fascism and the definition of politics. The speaker defined politics as, basically, the way we decide who gets to live and thrive in our society, and who in our society is an acceptable target for violence and whose lives are disposable. The speaker said that leftists think that everybody gets to live and thrive, everybody except for people who would try to deny other people that same freedom, aka, fascists. And the only thing fascists have to do to be able to live and thrive in a leftist society is to stop being fascists, which they can do at any time. Fascists, on the other hand, think that the only people that get to live and thrive in society are people like them. White people, able-bodied people, straight people, whatever it is. And there is no way for people that are caught outside of that to ever become white, straight, cis or able-bodied. So fascist ideology is inherently violent. And it wasn’t until it was explained that way that I could easily sort through what was 'fascist’ and what was 'non-fascist’. I could use that to measure up my anti-racist activism… not fascist. LGBT/queer rights? Not fascist. Disability activism? Inherently leftist, actually. But TERF-ism? There was no way for men or trans women to ever be entitled to live and thrive in a TERF world, which made me realize that TERFs are inherently fascistic. I didn’t want to be a fascist, and fascism sucks, and doesn’t make any sense, and is cruel and harmful. So, that was what really made me do a 180, intellectually, about TERFism, was seeing the parallels between what fascism definitionally is, and what TERFism definitionally is, and how one can be defined by the other.
2.) Second thing that made me realize, intellectually, that I was wrong about gender was reading about science and biology. TERFs have a very elementary understanding of those topics, but honestly it’s hard to get them on that. Feminism is a social science, and lots of TERFs find it pretty easy to just avoid any scientific information that doesn’t mesh with their idealogy already. It’s not surprising, I’m sure, to find out that the graph of “transphobic shittiness” and “doesn’t know jack shit about biology” is a straight line. Lots of TERFs are smart, educated, etc. But about biology? Not so much.
I personally think the best way to point out how TERFs are fascists is to draw parallels between what fascism definitionally is, and how TERF ideology and rhetoric is literally exactly that. Lots of TERFs are Jewish, poor, wlw… so drawing parallels between TERFs and anti-semitism, racism, classism or homophobia doesn’t resonate with TERFs or TERF sympathizers, and people that hate TERFs already know TERFs are fascists. Things like anti-semitism, racism, etc etc… that’s not really TERF rhetoric, anymore than it’s racist rhetoric or homophobe rhetoric. All fascists are going to share some common rhetoric because they’re all fascists. TERFs don’t think of themselves as fascists, though. They think of themselves as leftists, so saying “TERF rhetoric sounds like anti-semitism” isn’t convincing to TERFs because they don’t think they are anti-semites or racists or homophobes or whatever, and they don’t see the similarities or parallels, and if they do they shrug it off or attribute it to something else.
That being said, I think it’s important in leftist spaces to point out language specific to that community that mirrors TERF rhetoric. One, because that is probably the canary in the coalmine about how bad this particular ideology is, and two, because TERFs hide in those spaces.
Again, my point isn’t to say what you said was wrong or bad or even that you shouldn’t do it. I don’t think it’s my place to say how trans women interact with TERFs, and besides, I think you’re factually right–TERFs and anti-semites say many of the same things because it’s all fascism. My point is only to give you what I think might be more effective tools in how to engage with TERF, TERF rhetoric and other spaces where TERFs might be lurking.
Besides discussing fascism and biology specifically, making it clear TERFs aren’t welcome in leftist spaces is ENORMOUSLY EFFECTIVE. TERFs complain, bitch, moan unendingly about how unfair it is that other leftists don’t want to play nice with them. Every single leftist that runs a stim blog or an anti-racism blog or a discourse blog or whatever, all of them, they ALL need to just put in those “if you’re a TERF/radfem don’t interact” disclaimers because it really does help break TERFs apart and keep them from feeling comfortable. This is effective specifically because so many TERFs are leftists-other-than. Spoonie TERFs, TERFs of color, lesbian/bisexual TERFs, they all want to seek out resources in these spaces, and they really can’t see why they’re excluded and trans women aren’t, and honestly, it was something that really bothered and hurt me, and that’s a good thing. It made it honestly just… not worth it. I wasn’t willing to lose other wlw and other black people to keep being a transphobic piece of shit.
Pointing out how transphobia specifically harms women that are oppressed on other axes as well is also helpful. Seeing how much your chronic pain and disability and neurodivergency affected your ability to access resources as a trans woman made me realize how much I was hurting spoonies and other ND people by being a TERF. It makes it hard to push out trans women when they are your allies in other spaces, and when it’s clear the oppression you share together is worse for them because they are also oppressed for being trans. That is probably the #1 thing, emotionally, that hit me, was realizing how much I was hurting not 'trans women’, because TERFs don’t give a fuck about them already, but how much I was hurting black people and ND people and disabled people and queer/LGBT ppl who also just so happened to be trans, because you can’t adequately address racism or ableism or homophobia without addressing how transphobia intersects with them, too.
The attack against TERFs should be two-pronged. Destroying their power in leftist/SJ spaces by pushing TERFs out, and by pointing out how language people use INSIDE communities (not how TERFs sound like other fascists, but how leftist language can come from TERF sources and echo TERF rhetoric, and to be extra-vigilant and wary of those spaces and the people, rhetoric and ideology that come from them) can be TERF-like. Also, again, reminding TERFs who do exist on other axes of oppression that they CANNOT adequately address those forms of oppression without acknowledging that transphobia hurts trans women uniquely. And the second prong is actually convincing individual TERFs, but I think that’s not a job for trans women to do, that’s a job for other cis people to do. And it doesn’t ever involve specifically talking to or with individual TERFs, which I’m sure you know. Discourse just feeds them. But pointing out how their rhetoric is inherently fascistic, and sharing as much correct information about biology and sex and gender as possible, is the best way, I feel, to convince individual TERFs. Not that, again, I think that’s really necessary, but it can certainly feel good and it disrupts them greatly to lose theorists and rhetoricians from the community. It’s also important that if an article is written for the explicit purpose of convincing TERFs, then it needs to be as TERF-friendly as possible, in that it shouldn’t be written with the air of educating a bigot, because bigots don’t think they’re bigots, not usually. If a TERF reads an article about biology and feels like it’s a vehicle for talking about trans people and gender theory, they will dismiss it out of hand. But if it feels like it doesn’t have an agenda, but the facts presented don’t mesh with TERF rhetoric and TERF information, then it CAN plant a seed that starts to grow cracks in the ideology, and start people asking questions.
Mostly I want to give you hope, and let you know that TERFs are bigoted, transphobic shitstains, but they’re not a lost cause, and the problem is not insurmountable. They’re also generally powerless outside of leftist/social justice spaces. They can be very loud and very aggressive and very virulent. They are extremely unpleasant and it can be very hurtful, I imagine, to be rejected by 'feminist’ women for not being a 'good enough’ woman. But 1.) TERFs don’t own the concept of womanhood, society does, and I think society has made it clear that trans women are definitely women. So, like, on that note, honestly fuck what TERFs think, because what they think is wrong. and 2.) they can change their minds. they can be defeated. they can be scoured away to a corner of the internet so small, it exists only as proof of how tolerant a society we have.
Anyway this is what I have to offer–information that, maybe, not being on the inside of their weird, freaky little cult, you didn’t have before, but now you do. Do with it as you will! Have a beautiful day, Sam, as beautiful a day as you are :)
Simply put, this is the best takedown of TERFs and their ideology that I have ever read, and honestly, this should be mandatory reading for any and all trans allies. I have so much I want to say right now because wow, but I’m going to keep this short.
I have the advantage of having a friend - one of my closest, dearest friends - who used to be a TERF (not Nonny, I assume). I am flipitant about TERFs because little of this is new to me and when I encounter them I simply block them after a little snark. No platform and all that.
But there are a few points that stunned me because I never connected them. And oh my gosh are those connections important.
I especially appreciate the points you made about intersecting axes of marginalization. It is easy to forget that TERFs are people to, with valid needs for support. I think conceptually I sort of danced around those ideas but they never fully resolved into something I could articulate.
Thank you so much for taking the time and energy to write this. You are an absolute gem for doing so and I really appreciate it.