Activism, Feminism, Media, recent

Understanding the Propaganda Campaign Against So-called ‘TERFs’

“TERFs and what everyone needs to know about trans-exclusionary radical feminists,” ran the title of an article in Cosmo last month. TERFs—a term of abuse that means “trans-exclusionary radical feminist”—are a “minority group who usually stick to online forums,” it explained, though they also hand out “transphobic leaflets.” Under the guise of protecting women, they spread the idea that “trans women are a threat because they are men, attempting to gain access to women’s spaces such as bathrooms and trick lesbians into having sex with them.” Many are, apparently, “funded by anti-abortion and evangelical groups.” Some call themselves “gender-critical” to seem more “palatable to the general public.” But, the article argues, it would be best to call them what they are: “anti-trans activists.”

The same themes appeared in an article published a few weeks earlier by Vox, entitled, “The rise of anti-trans ‘radical’ feminists, explained.” So-called TERFs, author Katelyn Burns wrote, are anti-trans bigots and anti-feminist; funded by conservative Christians; a small online cabal in thrall to gender stereotypes. Burns also set out, in some detail, a related case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court: R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Much as I take exception to the contents of both articles, Harris Family Funeral Homes is indeed an excellent place to start if you want to understand what is at issue in the campaign against “TERFs,” as well as the torqued language that is used to prosecute it.

Harris Family Funeral Homes centers on Aimee Stephens (born Anthony), who started working at a Detroit-area funeral home as a man; and, after six years of employment, transitioned to presenting as a woman. That meant following the funeral home’s dress code for women (dress or skirt) rather than that for men (suit with trousers). Two weeks later, the manager, Thomas Rost, fired Stephens, in part because, as the Vox article has it, she “was no longer going to represent [herself] as a man. [She] wanted to dress as a woman.” The square brackets embedded in this quotation were inserted by Vox, not me, because Rost used male pronouns to describe the person whom he had known and worked with for six years as a man—but Vox did not wish to repeat this act of “misgendering.”

The position of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), along with various other civil-rights bodies such as the American Civil Liberties Union, is that Stephens suffered discrimination because of being trans rather than “cis” (i.e., non-trans), and that this should count as sex discrimination, as understood under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. They argue, roughly, that Stephens is being penalised for being the “wrong” sort of woman—much as women in earlier cases won recompense after they were fired for not wearing high heels or enough makeup. The funeral home, supported by amicus briefs—including one from the Women’s Liberation Front or WoLF, a radical-feminist group—counter that Stephens is not, as the term should be understood under Title VII, a woman at all. Stephens was fired for behaving in a way that would have got any male fired. No discrimination occurred.

A broad ruling in favour of the EEOC could establish gender self-declaration (or “self-identification,” or “self-ID”) as the de facto standard across America when it comes to distinguishing “men” from “women.” This would have enormous implications for all sorts of single-sex provisions, from battered-women’s shelters to women’s sports.

Most discrimination claims follow a common structure. (I’m speaking generally here, not presenting a legal opinion or referring to any particular country’s laws). It runs like this: X is a person of type Y. People of type Y are permitted to do Z. But person X has not been permitted to do Z, or has been punished for doing Z, and there is no distinction between person X and other people of type Y that would serve to reasonable justify such disparate treatment.

For example: Stephens was a woman working at Harris Funeral Homes. Women working at Harris Funeral Homes are permitted (indeed required) to wear skirts or dresses. Stephens wore skirts and dresses, yet was fired for doing so. The basis for that decision was that Stephens identifies as a trans woman, and is not a cis woman, a distinction that does not comprise a reasonable basis for disparate treatment. The employer’s actions therefore are discriminatory.

Other hypothetical examples could be: Stephens is forbidden from using the ladies’ restroom, yet has not behaved in such a way as to justify such exclusion; or Stephens was ruled ineligible for a grant program reserved for female entrepreneurs, yet doesn’t fall outside the program criteria in any other respect; or, Stephens is barred from a women’s athletic competition, and not because of, say, an applicable age or weight limitation.

In other words, discrimination cases typically are assessed in regard to some comparator class: the “people of type Y.” Stephens’ case stands or falls on the issue of whether or not Stephens is a woman. If “she” is a woman, a finding of discrimination is indicated; if “he” is not, then such a finding is difficult to prove.

That logic, in a nutshell, signals what the “trans-exclusionary” part of “TERF” refers to. It certainly sounds bad (“exclusion” being a modern secular sin), for it suggests that so-called TERFs want trans people excluded from health care, or from jobs or homes, or from society as a whole—or even from life itself. (A popular line of argumentation in trans-activist social media is that gender-critical voices are “literally” seeking to “erase” trans people.) But in fact, the only thing that most “gender-crits” reject is the idea that males can be members of the group “women.” According to Vox, the term “TERF” was created in good-faith, and not as a slur, as a means to “separate radical feminists who support trans people and those who don’t.” But this issue really has nothing to do with who “supports” whom. It’s a question of definitions.

We are instructed by both Cosmo and Vox that only a small minority think males cannot be women. In fact—in Britain at least—that is the view of a large majority. We know this because of a 2018 crowd-funded survey of a random, representative sample of people who were asked to consider a fictional person who identifies as a woman but was born male and has male genitalia (as almost all trans women do, genital reconstruction being a rarity). Respondents were asked whether such a person is a woman, a man, or neither, or whether they preferred not to say. Only 19% considered such a person to be a woman; 52% replied man. Follow-up questions about whether this person should be permitted to compete in women’s sports, or use female changing-rooms, or be incarcerated in a women’s prison if they receive a custodial sentence, found similar results. In other words, though few people are “radical feminists” (the term refers to a specific analysis of relations between the sexes), a huge majority of ordinary Britons would be considered “trans-exclusionary” under the typology used by Cosmo and Vox.

There can be no doubt that those who wrote the Civil Rights Act would not have thought Stephens was a woman. It would not even have occurred to them. Stephens is male, and it is only recently that the idea that a male can literally be a woman, or a female a man, has even been entertained, let alone been enshrined as progressive orthodoxy.

Of course, neither popular opposition nor the original intention of legislators should be held as conclusive. Public opinion and definitions change, and many of the most important civil-rights revolutions were advanced in defiance of social tradition, political pushback and even violence. Those who wrote that “all men are created equal” did not mean to include women in that equality, and yet that is how the line is now interpreted. It would once have seemed absurd to imagine that women should be granted the franchise, or that marriages should be permitted between people of the same sex.

But the arguments that women should be allowed to vote, and that gay people should be allowed to wed, won on their merits. The argument that males can be women must be won on the same basis, which has not yet been done. Instead, what we have been offered is linguistic subterfuge.

Consider the way Vox described Stephens’ back story: “She had known since she was 5 years old that she was a girl and had been living as a woman outside of work for some time. Though she loved her job at Harris, where she had worked her way up from apprentice to funeral director, she felt she had to hide who she was there. Until she couldn’t any longer.”

This is called “begging the question”—an expression that is often misused, but which actually means “assuming that which is to be proven.” (It is also called circular reasoning.) The child under discussion was a boy, anatomically, legally and socially. That boy would have been accepted into a male sports team and the Boy Scouts, and turned away from a female sports team and the Girl Guides. Calling that child “she” is a rhetorical device used to sidestep the need to argue that Stephens is now a woman, by pretending that Stephens was always a woman (or girl). It is analogous to someone from a bygone age seeking to give women the vote by insisting that women were always able to vote, and supporting that claim by redefining the words used in the laws restricting the franchise to males, and then denying that the words had ever meant anything different.

As already noted, the above-discussed survey was crowd-funded—which brings me to yet another claim in the Vox and Cosmo articles: that “TERFs” are linked to evangelical Christians and far-right groups. One hears this in the UK, where gender-critical groups are dismissed as the paid-off puppets of shadowy American Conservatives. Well, if all this lucre were on offer, why on earth would British women have felt the need to crowdfund as a means to collect data?

It should also be noted that so-called “TERFs” also are required to pass the digital hat to defend themselves against civil and criminal cases taken by trans activists who sue them for hate speech, or to take their employers to tribunal when they lose their jobs for gender-critical beliefs, or to try to stop the police from hounding alleged “TERFs” because of something they wrote on social media.

It is certainly true that the fight against gender self-ID has made for strange bedfellows—for it turns out that understanding that humans are sexually dimorphic mammals incapable of changing sex is not restricted to any one part of the political spectrum. Some among these bedfellows are indeed motivated by the belief that Man and Woman are categories created by a higher power, and so it is not for humans to redefine those categories.

But it is not “TERFs” who are motivated by adherence to conservative gender norms. Just the opposite: Since gender activists have thrown out biology as the criterion for distinguishing between men/boys and women/girls, they have to fall back on something else. And that something invariably has turned out to be stereotypes. All the “TERFs” I know would unhesitatingly support Stephens’ right to wear a skirt to work. But they don’t think that right should depend on whether Stephens is a woman.


Helen Joyce is a writer based in the UK. Follow her on Twitter at @HJJoyceEcon.

Featured image: Attendee at a 2019 Canadian pride march.



  1. The stance of Cosmo and Vox is nothing short of gaslighting the entire public.

  2. Progressive cultural shift has one play in their playbook. It goes like this.

    “Don’t like our idea? We don’t need to hear any of your oppressive explanations. The fact that you disagree with us is proof enough that you’re a bigoted, racist, sexist, backwards mouth breathing rube and we will smear you with all the shit at our disposal to discredit you, and thereby your opinion or evidence that may be contrary to ours.”.

    Radical feminists helped write this one trick playbook that is now being run on them. I couldn’t care less. Thing is, terfs are a small, annoying crowd who play up their own importance in this skirmish when in fact…nobody needs them or their help to fight back against this transgender nonsense. This is one issue too far for the majority at large. Terfs aren’t changing minds in any regard, they’re just finally aligning on a topic that makes sense to normal people.

    Spare me the explanations and links on why and how terfs are being abused.

    Can a man be a woman if he thinks he is a woman or vice versa? Biologically (even including the .05% chromosomal abnormality outliers) that answer is a resounding “Fuck no!”. That’s what people need to hear. Some may need to be reminded that transgendered people are human and deserve kindness and dignity, but most feel this way already and are willing to accept and accommodate within reasonable limitations.

  3. “Gender critical” feminists need to understand trans antirealism is the natural conclusion to feminist antirational hysteria. Antirealism follows antirationality. Arguments for reality tend to dissolve when you think all the ways one can access reality is tainted by male impurity simply because men used reality to structure society.

    Feminist disgust for society entails their disgust for reality. You cannot separate society from the basis upon which it is founded.

    Until they give up their victim-obsessed hysteria, when arguing against the trans movement “gender critical” feminists are merely fighting that which they are.

  4. First time posting here, so not totally sure what to expect.

    I’ll preface this by saying that I’m trans, so obviously I’ve got some bias, but also a lot of domain knowledge.

    I’ll start off by saying that I found this article very interesting. It’s not often that I find myself actually engaged by an article that defends so-called TERFs in a way that makes me feel like the writer is actually reasonable. Well written and well put, even if it is rather lacking in terms of perspective.

    So, the term TERF is being misused today. It’s a perfectly reasonable and acceptable term for the exact type of person the acronym was made for, people who are radical feminists who exclude trans people either from feminism, discussion around gender/sex equality, and the like. Now it’s being used for other people who are and have historically also been trans exclusionary, such as the religious right, and people who are plain intolerant or unwilling to have their mind changed.

    When I transitioned, it was assumed by almost all trans people that acceptance would be hard to find among the average person, and that most would not understand, and it was just something you had to live with as such a small part of the population. Most people didn’t have a major problem with trans people, but they also certainly weren’t understanding or accepting of us either. The term TERF was reserved for those people who were rabidly anti-trans acceptance in a way that most people were not. Now, trans activism is so big that I think it has, in a way, swayed many people more to one side or another for better or for worse, and the term TERF has expanded to mean pretty much anything.

    I still like to reserve the term for the group it was originally ascribed to. It’s not a “term of abuse;” although it may be used in that way, that does not make it inherently so. It’s merely a descriptor. While I don’t appreciate anyone being harassed for their views, it also doesn’t hurt to call a spade a spade.

  5. Good article. In one of Dave Chappelle’s Netflix specials, he told the LGBT community they were about to crap out. Gaslighting people about the degree to which trans ideology is accepted in the general populace, and browbeating the supposedly small minority willing to vocalise the perceptions of the general populace, is bound to produce a backlash. Overuse of the TERF designation is leading people who aren’t radical feminists at all to come up with their own slur, which I’ve noticed catching on on Facebook in just the last few days: TIMs (trans-identified males). It’s a brilliant acronym, everything TERF is but throwing in some misgendering. TIMs will regret the overzealous, irrational face they’ve put on their movement.

    Trans acceptance never should have been about accepting that a man could actually be a woman. It should have been about accepting that gender dysphoria is a real mental illness and pursuing research into what causes it and how it can be treated. More like how we treat schizophrenia than how we treat homosexuality. That we let the lunatics run the asylum (if you’ll pardon the expression) and make unreasonable demands on society will ultimately be to the detriment of trans people, who will not get the care they need, children, who will be disfigured and sterilized over a fad, and society at large, which will suffer the unforseen consequences of legally embracing an untruth.

  6. Let’s say -1 to 1, where -1 is the most negative effect an 1 is the most positive effect, and 0 is none.

    I am speaking from a place of mostly passing, so trans issues really don’t affect me as much. I do, however, feel for those people who don’t pass as well, so I’m sympathetic to that.

    1. -0.2

    The fact is, I just want to pee when I’m in the bathroom. It’s such a short part of my life and so inconsequential that it almost doesn’t matter to me which bathroom I use. Early in my transition I used the men’s bathroom because I didn’t pass as a woman, and I didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. Now I pass 95% of the time, so I don’t have that problem anymore, and now I feel unsafe in a men’s bathroom myself, so I use the women’s room. Activism on this has negatively affected me if anything, because now men can (and have I believe) exploit this, and now places are actually starting to make laws against using a bathroom not intended for your natal sex, which there were almost none of before.

    At the same time, I don’t think it’s a bad idea for places to have a “family restroom” (I see them called that in the US a lot anyway; a single toilet, full bathroom). This honestly helps with so many things, not just trans people, so I don’t necessarily think it’s exclusively a trans issue.

    1. 0

    I’m not an athlete or a fan of sports so it doesn’t really affect me, but I’ll say something short on it because I do think it’s really interesting. The primary issue here is transwomen who have gone through a full male puberty, and recent testosterone in your blood when competing in women’s sports. Testosterone makes one’s muscles bigger while on it, and in puberty, testosterone makes one’s bones larger and denser, which is an advantage in some sports and a disadvantage in others. Transwomen who went through a full male puberty (or any amount to a proportional extent) have a lifelong advantage in some sports, and transwomen who still have high t levels or did recently have an advantage from higher muscle mass. The same applies to transmen who might hypothetically be allowed (And be willing) to compete as women. However, if we disallow transwomen, then we would need to disallow ciswomen with naturally higher testosterone, because they have the same advantages, otherwise that’s obviously arbitrary discrimination based simply on transgenderism. This is a hard decision to make that we are still figuring out from all angles, and I’m not totally sure where I fall.

    1. 0.1

    Doesn’t really affect me. People get it right the vast majority of the time with me so it’s not really an issue. Where it is an issue people are generally very open to changing if you’re polite. I’ve never had anyone intentionally use the wrong pronouns with me.

    I’m happy to use any pronoun of she, he, and they, along with their variations, when referring to someone, personally. Don’t think anyone should be harassed for using the wrong ones, but it’s just kind of rude. If you know it’s upsetting, then at some level you’re trying to upset someone went you misgender them (not putting scare quotes around it because that’s just the term for it, not a bogeyman).

    1. 0.5

    As someone who is viewed by most people as a woman, I probably experience most of the same sociocultural issues that other women face. I can’t have kids of my own, obviously, but not every ciswoman can either, and that doesn’t disqualify those women. On that merit, I think I should be able to benefit from these things. This kind of poses similar issues to me as the bathroom thing, though, where opportunistic men can abuse it. It’s also worth mentioning that at the moment none of that is necessarily useful to me, but of course life is volatile and I value having support if I would need it.

  7. Very interesting read. Well written, and reasonable.

    I’m transskeptic myself. I am a scientist, and simply will not agree that the statement “a person with XY chromosomes can be a woman in the wrong body”.

    I do agree that anyone can do anything they want. With one exception. Persons who have grown past puberty with male hormones should be excluded from women’s sports, period. Regardless of testosterone levels. There are many other advantages men have (i.e., size of heart, size of lungs, general size, shape of pelvis, muscle responsiveness, bone structure, hemoglobin chemistry) that make it impossible to ever eliminate the male advantage.

    I also believe that the privacy rights of all should be respected. That means that changing rooms and locker rooms should be based on chromosomes, not your personal conception of who you are.

  8. No person welcomed me when I arrived 2 weeks ago. The Quillette commenting system did, but that is by an algorithm, and thus is not the same as a human welcome. I actually didn’t need a welcome. And neither does anyone else. Just come in and make a comment. Don’t be a turnip, that’s the key.

  9. All this transgender issues and activism around it just keeps blowing my mind, more and more every day.
    I understand that there is an affliction that makes person to perceive themselves as being in the wrong body, gender-ly speaking. Like there are thousand more pretty sever mental and physical afflictions, majority of which prevent people from doing things other people can and things that they may desire most of all, carrier-wise, family-wise, etc. In Western society so-called differently-abled people usually looked at with compassion, being accommodated as much as possible and they are getting medical help as much as is available for their issue at any point in time. Why it is not possible to just leave the gender dysphoria (that’s what it was called until recently) on the same terms as anything else?
    People get denied military service because of poor eyesight. As a matter of fact, there are tons of things that can cause you to be denied entering military service, a lot of them are far less significant than a mental problem that comes with a very high probability of suicide. Why single this one out and demand that there is nothing “different” about serving with such people in highly stressful and demanding environment?
    I bet if blind people, or rather, the advocates for the blind people, demanded that everybody put blindfolds on, their argument being, that is now the definition of seeing and normal, there would be a tremendous pushback that would negatively affect mostly blind people they try to “advocate for”.
    I cannot imagine living with this mental disorder, trying to get a treatment, make themselves as whole as possible, and at the same time coping with all the spotlight that shines on your affliction, and ultimately on you. It’s like going though cancer treatment and getting “we can beat it” e-mails every hour in your inbox and mentioning the condition at every meeting at work. Everyone is aware, alert, seemingly supportive, all the time, but does it make all easier and better?
    I don’t get the choice of the “cause”, I don’t see the ultimate goal, I don’t see any benefits to trans people. I don’t understand why just being compassionate, decent and supportive in treatment is not enough in this particular case.

  10. Transgenders (male to female) are endangering women’s opportunities in athletics. Bathrooms, changing areas and other normally private areas should be restricted to persons based upon the genitalia they possess. This is a safety issue. The fact that 90% of transgenders are not a threat in private places is irrelevant, just as 90% of lawful gun owners are not a threat but that doesn’t mean they should be allowed armed in the airport.

    If transgenders wish me to use their preferred pronouns I will politely comply within reason. If transgenders wants access to private areas my wife and daughter frequent or wish to deny them athletic opportunities, I must take a stand. If standing up for and with the women in my life makes me a bigot, then so be it.

  11. More and more, I find myself seeking peace in indifference.

  12. Thank you for this reasonable and well thought out comment. A lot of feminists seem to have a lot invested in painting women as 1. somehow better than men and 2. perpetual victims. Trans women mess with this ideology by their very existence. Including as many different perspectives as possible in discussions about gender seems like an interesting and worthwhile path. Sadly most of these debates have been hijacked by ideology.

  13. I think it’s sad that the only way for a man to get some sympathy and be protected from discrimination, is to pretend to be a woman; and even that is not enough for some feminists. Masculinity is really like the feminist version of the original sin.

  14. COuld I make a point on usage?
    I accept that those who have changed gender are trans men or trans women. However, those who were born women are women, and those born men are men. Let’s have no more of this ‘‘cis’’ nonsense. It is superfluous. A person is either a man, a woman, a trans man or a trans woman. Whether trans women get to join women in the traditoinally women-only spaces is a matter that can be debated, but trying to pre-empt the outcome of that debate by insisting that women and trans women are just two types of woman, is wrong.

  15. Let’s analyse. Firstly, are they feminists? Indeed they are. They would not argue they are not.

    Are they radical feminists? Radfems call for the reordering of society in which male supremacy is eliminated in all social and economic contexts. For example, they assert capitalism is patriarchy, so it must be toppled. Depending on which radfem berates you, you’ll be told it would be replaced by anarchy or communism. Given the radfem’s love of ordering everyone around, their compulsive need for safety and to over-egg dangers, such as playing up bogeymen like “rape culture” and declaring “every man is a potential rapist,” which by the same logic everyone is a potential criminal, it seems inconceivable to me that they’d leave it to chance everyone, especially males, would behave appropriately as deemed by radfems under a system of no government, so heavy handed statist control by an updated dictatorship of the proletariat seems more probable. Further, radfems include those who propose curfews for all men and entertain ideas of gender selective abortion of male foetuses.

    Radfems also disapprove of the individualism of liberalism and argue personal choices and individual achievement are not enough to transform society. Radfems favour collectivist approaches and admonish women who fail to adhere to the dogma and decisions proclaimed by their more theoretically influential sisters, often well-to-do academics and activists. To a radfem, “my body my choice,” applies only to certain behaviour and acts, such as abortion, and excludes other choices by women, such as supposedly objectifying oneself by modeling (if one is normatively attractive), participating in beauty pageants (if one is normatively attractive), acting in both sexually suggestive and sexually explicit films (if the audience includes the male gazers), etc.

    I find no evidence of radfems being ashamed of being both feminists and radicals, so I think we may conclude they’re out and proud.

    Trans exclusionary is well established. It goes beyond lavatories and locker rooms, which I think most reading here would agree ought to be segregated to XX and XY people, to include concerts, conferences, and even camp sites. Basically, spaces that trans exclusionary radical feminists declare women’s spaces exclude trans people, men, and even boys over a certain age, often 7 though some assert younger boys of age 3 and 4 may perpetrate sexual assault. Trans exclusion even goes so far to exclude trans women who have completed their gender reassignment surgeries. I can accept the argument that a transwoman with a penis still presents the threat of rape in lavatories and locker rooms, but once that’s been transformed to a vulva I think the threat posed is no greater than that posed by XX women with fingers and tongues. And, more bizarrely, they haven’t squared the circle of fully transitioned trans men with their new penises are still welcomed into women’s spaces, if they choose to use them.

    Trans exclusionary people are not shy about voicing their views and decisions to exclude. Whether they are proud of this I don’t know, but they certainly don’t disavow it.

    Are all radfems trans exclusionary? No. Catherine MacKinnon, a leading radfem, stated in 2015: "Anybody who identifies as a woman, wants to be a woman, is going around being a woman, as far as I’m concerned, is a woman.”

    Taken in aggregate, trans exclusionary radical feminist, is entirely accurate; it’s certainly more accurate than how fascist is tossed around haphazardly to label anyone to the right of Jeremy Corbyn. It pinpoints a particular subgroup of radfems. TERF is merely an acronym, and as acronyms go it isn’t offensive sounding. But we have a very weird situation where trans exclusionary radical feminists assert that it’s abusive. That it’s used by their opponents is indisputable. It appears to me that to TERFs it’s more than the merely the phrase and acronym are abuse, it’s the ideas and arguments of the opposition are abuse. That some of their opponents behave belligerently and even violently is also true, but in the history of radical feminism so too have radfems behaved the same and still do. Sure, they have their justifications and rationalisations to absolve this behaviour, and so do their opponents. Appears to me it’s simply a case of sour grapes that their tactics are used against them, often leaving them wrong footed.

    I’ll add trans women have been a PR blessing to radical feminism. Their radical ideas of toppling the world and creating a police state of oppressing men and suppressing freedoms for all appeal to very few. Their opposition to trans women appeal to many beyond their sky-is-falling study groups.

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