Surf & TERFs – On Trans*-Exclusionary Radical Feminists

Roy Ward

I am going to begin this article by checking my privilege. I am a white, cisgendered, able-bodied gay man with a good job and a roof over my head. I have it a hell of a lot easier than a lot of other people out there. I recognise that I have white privilege, male privilege, and even the privilege I am afforded when people who don’t know me incorrectly assume that I’m straight. In doing this, I accept how lucky I am to have all the characteristics to get by in a patriarchal society, and I accept how arbitrary it is that I happened to be born with them. I can also see how difficult it is for people without those characteristics I have to succeed and achieve in this society, and that pisses me off. Patriarchy is a hideously pervasive and damaging force and I for one would quite like to smash the shit out of it, thanks.

I am a feminist, but I’d put that revelation on a par with someone saying “I don’t like racism”. I know that the world is often a pretty terrible place for people who are not straight, white, rich men and I know that something needs to be done about that – and that’s what feminism is there for. I know there are many people out there who have their own issues with the “feminist” label, for any number of reasons, but in many cases it is because they have encountered other people using that label to express views they deeply disagree with.

The history of feminism is fascinating and complex, but is generally described as being split into three periods or “waves”, each with its own distinctive characteristics and ideals. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, first-wave feminism fought for legal equality for women, personified by the suffragette movement which sought women’s right to vote. Second-wave feminism appeared in the 1960s along with the Civil Rights movements and campaigned for cultural equality as well as political equality. Third-wave feminism began in the 1990s as a response to the perceived failings of the second-wave, which focused almost entirely on the experiences of white, cisgendered, middle class women. However, there are elements of the feminist community which never really moved away from second-wave thinking, which is where our friends the TERFs come in.

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TERF stands for Trans*-Exclusionary Radical Feminist, and they do pretty much what it says on the tin. I am not myself trans*, but that doesn’t stop me finding the views of these people utterly repugnant. If we are going to be precise, TERFs are not just transphobic, but they are deeply transmisogynistic – that is to say much of their ire is reserved for trans*women. The rhetoric generally goes that trans*women are not real women and never could be – to quote second-wave asshat Janice Raymond’s 1979 work The Transsexual Empire:

“All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artefact, appropriating this body for themselves. Transsexuals merely cut off the most obvious means of invading women, so that they seem non-invasive.”

This line is repeated by TERFs across the world and in particular across the Internet. Maryland attorney Cathy Brennan is one of Twitter’s most vocal and infamous TERFs. Brennan once wrote a letter to the UN stating that allowing trans*women access to female-only spaces will increase the danger of women being raped or sexually attacked by men – the so called “bathroom meme”. Her personal, highly offensive definition of trans* people is “males who shoot themselves up with hormones and demand others accept them as female”. Below are just two examples of the vile transmisogyny she puts forth onto Twitter, under the umbrella of “radical feminism”.


cathy brennan

Brennan is a cisgendered woman – she is not trans*. It is incredibly offensive for her to think she has even the slightest right to tell anybody trans* anything about their gender identity, and yet she is not alone. When a 21 year old identifying herself as a transgirl commented on one of Brennan’s blog posts, someone left the following response:

“Please stop calling yourself a woman, trans- or otherwise. […]  Real females are forced by this system from the moment of birth, however, into a life of oppression, violence and rape. You have chosen by your own volition to get yourself into this. It makes me sick whenever individuals such as you speaks of being discriminated against or oppressed. You have got no clue, young man.”

You’ve also got transphobic people in the public eye like Germaine Greer, or Julie Bindel, who writes columns for respected newspapers, spewing out bile about trans* identities simply “[arising] from the strong stereotyping of girls and boys into strict gender roles”. The Human Rights Campaign has estimated that that trans* individuals in the USA have a one in 12 chance of being murdered, compared to a one in 18,000 chance for cisgendered Americans. At least 265 trans* people have been murdered worldwide in the last 12 months. Trans* oppression is real, and in many cases it can be deadly.

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It’s important to note that the damage that TERFs can do is not limited to the Internet – they’re out there in the real world, too. Riley contacted me to tell me their story.

“I’d known for a while that TERFs have some pretty hateful views but I’d assumed that it was mainly an internet thing, that people wouldn’t say such things to a flesh-and-blood person standing right in front of them.  I was wrong.

I’m genderqueer and my pronoun is they/their. Nobody at work was particularly good at remembering not to use female pronouns when talking about me but Leanne (not her real name) never got it right. I thought it might help if I explained to her how important it is to me, how disrespectful and upsetting I find it, how all the little slip ups pile up into one huge mass that reminds me how different I am from most folk around me. That backfired. She actively refused to call me anything but she/her and shouted at me ‘I don’t care what you say you are, you’ll always be a straight woman’. (According to Leanne, bisexuals don’t exist and any ‘woman’ who is attracted to men is a traitor to the lesbian cause). She told me how she used to be involved in lesbian and gay campaigning but when bisexual and trans people started getting involved she ‘had to leave’.

Once, in response to yet another “I’ll always see you as a woman” comment, I said that not everyone did. Leanne responded by saying “No offence love, but I doubt that’ and making breast cupping motions. It wasn’t just me either. A transman friend of mine started volunteering there at my suggestion but he stopped coming in after Leanne was transphobic to him. Unfortunately, I needed the money and had to keep coming in to work even though I absolutely dreaded the days she was in.

I’d regularly come home from work crying and I was constantly stressed and trangsty (that’s trans angst). Simple things like getting dressed in the morning would become so emotionally and politically loaded. Non-binary people aren’t protected in legislation so I thought it was something I just had to grit my teeth and put up with but a friend of mine was a union member and told me that what Leanne was doing to me counted as harassment and that my employer was obliged to do something about it.


With the help of a union rep I made a formal complaint. Unbelievably, the person who was assigned to investigate it tried to pressure me out of making a formal complaint. Eventually, 5 months after I first told management, they agreed that Leanne had been harassing me (and that they hadn’t handled the situation properly). However, she’s still being employed by them whilst the funding for my post ran out.”

Many non-trans* people I’ve spoken to over the past few weeks whilst researching for this article have expressed their ignorance about TERFs – it’s evidently not a phenomenon they’ve come across thus far in their Internet adventures. Lucky them. These transphobic radfems are firmly stuck in feminism’s second wave – their Radfem 2012 conference in London was declared as a “woman-only space,” specifically for “women born women and living as women” – i.e. no trans*women, at all, ever. TERFs cling pretty rigidly to biological determinism – you’re born a man or you’re born a woman and it’s that simple. This is textbook second-wave stuff, and should have died out at the end of the 1980’s along with massive shoulder pads and Bonnie Tyler’s career (let’s pretend Eurovision never happened). The rest of us have since moved on and discovered Judith Butler, who argued that gender, as opposed to sex, was “an aspect of identity which is ‘gradually acquired'”. Many of us now don’t even accept that sex is an infallible biological absolute – sex and gender are both social constructs. The phrase “women born women” is demonstrably fallacious and ridiculous, and arguably serves the patriarchy a hell of a lot more than it serves feminism – but for TERFs it serves to divide them from their trans* sisters, who they refuse to accept as women.

I find the ideology of trans* exclusionary radical feminism both repulsive and fundamentally flawed – but I’m sure that I’m unlikely to sway anybody who already adheres to their philosophy. Thankfully there are a great many more of us on the right side – feminists who echo Flavia Dzodan’s battle cry “My feminism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit.” Feminism is not just built to cater for rich, white, cis women any more – it’s there for everyone. It’s there to ensure that everybody gets the same opportunities in society, and to do that it has to fight for everybody – even you, Men’s Rights Activists. Feminists hate the patriarchy, not other people. Evidently the TERFs missed that memo.

About Roy Ward

When Roy was 7 a girl tied him to a tree and tried to set him on fire. He now lives in Leeds with his boyfriend. These facts may be connected. Vada's Deputy Editor, he loves pop culture in all its forms, plus feminism; drag queens and Nigella Lawson. Find him on Twitter @badlydrawnroy.