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Life After Stonewall: The Struggle Against TERFs and the Far Right

Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists are aligned with right wing views on gender and sexuality. Here is where they come from and why we should fight them.

Signý A.

June 26, 2019
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Stonewall is one of the most famous episodes of modern queer history, but other important parts of queer history and queer struggle are far less well-known. Some of these, such as incidents of trans-exclusionary “feminist” aggression and the campaign to keep transition care from American trans people, continue to have a strong impact on queer struggle today. It has become a tactic of certain groups to co-opt the language of feminism and queer struggle in order to undermine them. These currents have found a friendly reception with the fascists now rising around the world, especially in the US and the UK. Trans women, especially Black and Latina trans women, continue to die in American jails, hospitals, and streets. American police continue to arrest trans women for simply existing in the world as trans.

Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism

Trans-exclusionary radical feminists — not to be confused with radical feminists who are not bigoted against trans women — have a long history of bringing hateful, unscientific rhetoric and even physical violence to feminist spaces. Radical feminism asserts that the oppression of women is rooted in the patriarchy — the social forces that make cis men authority figures to whom all others must be subservient. TERFs often call themselves “gender critical”, arguing that gender (including gender expression and gender identity) does not actually exist aside from patriarchal social constructs. This includes the claim that trans people are one of these patriarchal social constructs. They push a view of sex that is so oversimplified and reductive as to be scientifically inaccurate. In order to make clear the difference between the reactionary, exclusionary kind of radical feminist and those who are not bigoted, trans-exclusionary radical feminists have become known by an acronym of that long term — TERFs. This acronym was created by cis radfems who did not want to be miscategorized as anti-trans.

In the 1970s, there was a radical feminist and lesbian separatist music collective called Olivia Records. One of their sound engineers was Sandy Stone, a trans woman. The collective knew she was trans and supported her as a woman and member of the collective, even helping her access transition healthcare. But certain reactionary elements made it their business to get rid of Stone. Despite a massive campaign of hate mail and death threats waged by these people, Olivia Records refused to abandon their trans member. The strategy behind this aggression was to get rid of trans people by attrition. Knowing that trans people are a vulnerable minority, the haters will often try to isolate us and keep us from any and all social, economic, and healthcare support. Before a concert in Seattle, Olivia Records received a death threat against Stone from a group of TERF reactionaries who called themselves Gorgons. Upon investigation, this was found to be a serious threat. But the collective was prepared and hired strong security for the concert. The reactionaries did indeed show up with guns, but the guards confiscated them.

In a similar incident, a cis woman at the 1973 Lesbian Conference was physically attacked by TERFs for standing between them and several trans women they intended to beat up. The conference had always been trans inclusive and voted to remain so after this incident. In 1993, at what became one of the most notoriously anti-trans events — the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (MWMF), a survey run by a cis trans-inclusive radical feminist found that most attendees at the festival wanted trans women to be there. TERFs vandalized a stand educating attendees about trans women and threatened further violence if trans women were not all removed from the festival. In 1999, several Lesbian Avengers (a lesbian direct action group from that time) attended the MWMF with a 16 year-old trans girl in their group. A mob of TERFs surrounded them, yelling slurs. MWMF security officers pushed them into a tent where a large group of TERFs berated the young trans girl for hours. One threatened her with a knife.

In England in 2017, a TERF was recorded on video brutally manhandling a trans woman much smaller than herself. Purely on account of them being trans, the TERFs, the English media, and the police immediately painted these innocent trans women as the aggressors. This overwhelming media bias leads to trans people being denied justice and support when targeted by bigotry-motivated violence. It’s also a kind of historical revisionism in the present day that socialists should oppose.

Entire websites exist where TERFs and members of the alt-right share private information about trans people so that others may take offline action with it, such as death threats and contacting employers to try to get trans people fired. These online hate sites have been linked to both trans deaths and the New Zealand mosque shootings. 

Decades of Reactionary Misinformation 

Reactionaries often claim that trans women are a threat to cis women merely by existing. This claim typically takes one of two forms. Sometimes they claim that trans women are biologically male and thus “really men”, presenting a threat to women’s safety, privacy, and comfort in women’s spaces. There is more than enough scientific evidence to refute that claim. The reactionaries almost never mention trans men being in men’s spaces, nor the effect of forcing men who happened to be assigned female into women’s spaces. They never acknowledge the existence of non-binary people either and only mention intersex people when attempting to use them to bludgeon trans women. It is of course possible for a person to be trans, non-binary, and intersex all at the same time. The other claim is a kind of lesser version of the first. Rather than going directly to “trans woman = man”, they will say that having women who they think look like men in women’s spaces will allow any actual men to get in and cause harm by pretending to be trans women. Obviously, men who intend harm have never needed to pretend to be anything other than men in order to commit and often get away with harm. TERFs ignore violence committed by women almost entirely. The truth is that human sex biology is far more complicated than a light switch. Science also does not exist in a vacuum. It can never supercede a human being’s right to interpret her/his/their own body for themself, nor the right to exercise autonomy over it. The systemic violence under capitalism that often keeps trans people from bodily autonomy cannot change the fact that we still have the right to it.

In 1979, the notorious Janice Raymond published what is possibly the most blood-soaked book in modern queer history — The Transsexual Empire. It was a large hit piece on trans women. Many present-day anti-trans notions, such as trans women being a living stereotype, transition healthcare being cosmetic and experimental, and the idea of legislating trans people out of existence, go back to this book. These anti-trans notions formed the basis for healthcare denial and many other forms of systemic and social discrimination that persist into the present. This kind of overwhelming oppression leads to suicides, medical negligence, and homelessness. It also encourages street violence. 

While transmisogyny comes from many sources, much of the anti-trans misinformation currently seen can be linked back to TERF movements from the 1970s. The above-mentioned book is basically a condensed version of such. When the book was published, medical transition care was at least 50 years old. Raymond worked with the government at the time to define transition care as controversial, unethical, cosmetic, and not medically necessary. Shortly after publishing her book, she wrote a report for the National Center for Health Care Technology that included much of the same rhetoric. This led to an epidemic of trans healthcare denial in the US that continues into the present. Before that, US government policy followed the science and recognized transition healthcare as medically necessary for many trans people. Medicare covered transition healthcare before this for poor trans people in Minnesota (and possibly other states also), but Raymond and Reagan eliminated it in the 1980s. 

Multiple professional healthcare organizations recognize transition care as medically necessary for those who need it, including the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and the World Professional Association for Transgender Health. Some trans people do not require transition healthcare, but only the patient, in consultation with their qualified healthcare providers, can make that determination, not some cis academic with no knowledge of the relevant science. To this day, many American medical insurance plans continue to exclude transition care based on these debunked claims, even though such exclusion is now illegal under the Affordable Care Act and some state and local laws. A number of countries with universal healthcare systems have long covered transition care, including Canada, Sweden, and the UK. Shortly after the Russian Revolution, the USSR sent some of its healthcare professionals to Berlin to learn about LGBT healthcare from the Institute for Sexual Research. 

The Erasure of Queer History and the Silencing of Trans Voices

The only reason that anyone could believe that transition healthcare was experimental or that trans people didn’t exist until recently is the erasure of much of the queer history and medical research from prior decades. This erasure began with the destruction of the Institute for Sexual Research in Berlin in May of 1933 by a large mob of fascists. It became the most famous book burning of WWII history. Many of those books were on LGBT+ health and wellness, including texts on trans-specific biology and medical procedures. With the stronghold of gay and trans rights in Germany destroyed, the Nazis put LGBT people into the same death camps as Jewish people, Roma people, communists, and others. Gay and trans people in these camps were labeled with a pink triangle and were often treated the worst of all prisoners. They suffered rape, medical experimentation, and even sadistic murder for the amusement of the Nazi guards. American and English soldiers who later encountered these camps freed everyone except for the prisoners with a pink triangle. Instead, many of the gay people were put back in prison. The Soviet Army freed everyone in the camps they liberated, including gay and trans people. 

Even now, the erasure of queer and trans history and the suppression of trans voices continues. Certain parties will use collections of throw-away social media accounts to mass report trans people for bogus claims as an attempt to silence and isolate them. Killings of trans people continue to be underreported, especially in healthcare settings. Some of this is due to misgendering in media and police reports. From grade school up to medical school, education on trans people and issues is often flimsy, inaccurate, or simply absent.

TERFs and the Far Right 

Many prominent trans-exclusionary pseudo-feminists receive support from and have ideological similarities to another group that might seem directly opposed to them: far-right Christians. One self-described radical feminist related an account of taking a political trip with a known English TERF that ended up turning into a meeting with rich anti-abortion elements in the US. The trip also appears to have been funded by an American far-right organization, none of which was known to this particular woman ahead of time. It can be gleaned from instances like this that trans-exclusionary reactionaries often have no problem collaborating with and accepting funds from powerful far-right groups that fight against women’s rights, nor with manipulating and lying in the service of their obsessive hatred of trans people. The link between TERFs and the far-right is also described other places.

One particular TERF group, the “Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF)”, sent at least one member to lobby against the Equality Act, which would make sexual orientation and gender identity protected characteristics under federal law. Despite the name, most of WoLF’s activities appear to be not fighting for the liberation of all women but attacking those women who happened to be assigned male at birth. This includes suing the Obama Administration to try to keep trans students from safe bathroom access. How does a fringe TERF group get the resources for such activities? From bourgeois far-right organizations such as the “Alliance Defending Freedom”, which has given WoLF at least $15,000. Both of these groups worked together to try to keep trans people out of homeless shelters, which the Trump regime has now joined in on.

While some might use the term “political lesbian” to mean a lesbian who is politically active, some TERFs use it to mean “lesbian only for political reasons.” They claim to be lesbian because they do not have sex with men as a way of rebelling against patriarchy.

Some of them see this as celibacy, since they do not consider anything but cishetero intercourse to be actual sex. This perspective is not original to them. It comes from Christian fundamentalism, which also considers only intercourse between a cis man and a cis woman to be actual sex.

When examined, their “gender critical” TERFs platform falls apart. They do not want gender neutral bathrooms, and they are against gender neutral pronouns. Despite study after study showing the biological, social, cultural, and historical legitimacy of trans people, these pseudo-feminist reactionaries continue to throw their reductive, high-school level understanding of biology at trans people in vain but nonetheless harmful attempts to delegitimize them. Their rhetoric is directly opposed to one of the core ideas of feminism — that women are more than just a collection of body parts.

In the struggle against imperialism and exploitation, it is critical to look not only at economic class but also all other divisions in society. Transphobia and transmisogyny, homophobia, sexism, and racism are among many ideological weapons that the bourgeoisie uses against the proletariat. That is why effective revolutionary practice must necessarily be inclusive and feminist. As shown in this article, reactionaries will sometimes claim the mantle of feminism as a cover for divisive and oppressive attacks against some of the most marginalized people. They do this to divide and subvert the cause of liberation and must therefore be opposed just as strongly as the fascists, the corporate bosses, and the brutal officers of the state.

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