The purpose of this work is to examine how the biological identity politics of trans exclusionary radical feminists, predominantly situated as an activist collective in the UK, perpetuates the disparity of trans individuals by way of supporting a “grand narrative” (Barker, p. 55) of womanhood, and how the political battle for biological women’s rights can be deconstructed from a queer theory perspective. Trans exclusionary radical feminists, this work concedes, are a diverse non-group of individuals spanning many cultures and continents, very few of whom presumably using the acronym TERF as a proud handle. The term TERF was an invention of convenience, as Viv Smythe confessed in an article for the Guardian(Smythe, 2018). Smythe considers the insult taken by radical feminists as well as the politicization of the term post-writ, asserting that her original intent was simply to avoid repetition of such a long collection of words. This current work’s use of the word TERF is in the same spirit as its original context, an acronym for feminists who do not include transgender women as women, and who use a particular discourse that does in effect unify this vast umbrella comprised of otherwise diverse, unassociated people. This work will examine the ways in which TERFs use patriarchal, discursive language and “regimes of truth” not based in modern feminist thought to fight for legal rights that exclude specifically trans women from gendered women’s spaces, and how identity politics is both publicly rejected yet also employed as an unspoken technique to meet the political ends of activist’s agendas. Post-structuralist thought will be used to explore the power relations between “groups,” and how Foucauldian notions such as power-knowledge and discourse may contribute to the shaping of such power relations.
Biological identity politics and the creation of a “grand narrative” of womanhood
Transphobia is “persistent” in the UK in part because of influential British columnists who established careers keeping the topic in the mainstream media (Jacques, 2020). This reproduction of messages sets a dominant stance once upheld by activist groups such as feminists or LGB activists, of which many TERFs identify as either or both. Trans identities get buried in theory and the public perception of trans identifying people is likely influenced by the popular discourse, making possible morality-based laws and mobilization of legal action to suppress the smaller, “harmful” group which challenges the legitimacy of the dominant message. As popular discourse builds a “grand narrative” of womanhood from which male and female bodies are defined and measured, trans bodies become easily boxed into biological categories to sort out legal concerns over bathroom use or participation in sports as examples. This work asserts the hypothesis that TERF discourse is an attempt at forcing trans people into a docile state, and that as a result identity politics are employed to generate the accepted “normal” characteristics of womanhood (Barker, p. 70).
Transgender people, especially trans women in this context, are argued by many TERFs as a medical “problem” that influences the young and elicits unnecessary medicalization to ail a psychiatric illness. Many activists have taken to the internet for their message to reach a larger audience. One such anti-trans feminist named Maya Forstater had a complication when her contract was not renewed after the business Forstater worked for discovered that her social media content was inappropriate and did not reflect the values of her host. Her following has risen since J.K. Rowling, prominent author of the Harry Potter series, retweeted the following text, “Dress however you please. Call yourself whatever you like. Sleep with any consenting adult who will have you. Live your best life in peace and security. But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real? #IStandWithMaya #ThisIsNotADrill” (Rowling, 2019). Forstater’s common calls for activism are that women are being fired for “telling the truth,” that trans women are not women because their biological bodies make that impossible, and that biological, essential differences in male bodies and gender socialization negate “men’s” entry into womanhood (Forstater, Twitter 2019). There are hundreds of associated accounts with similar content on her public followers list. Common themes emerge of trans women being predators and “women” not being safe around biological males. Queer theory would assert that this British connection to TERF culture is steeped in the social, and that this connection is based in a power relation (Barker, p. 56) that revolves around knowledge that is contextual, between a group which stands for the gender binary accepted by society in Western culture, and a group that stands to blur the social meaning of those biological identities. Forstater’s Twitter feed reflects this ideology of the dominant culture, that women are biologically defined and exclusive. Even amid the COVID-19 scare which is taking the UK by storm, her most current tweet as of this writing is gender critical (often used in lieu of TERF) and aimed directly at trans people (https://twitter.com/MForstater/status/1244920120943824896). Transgender people, often from low socioeconomic backgrounds, are not centered within the regime of truth that TERFs subscribe to in order to subjugate other knowledges, leaving their voices erased due to the power-knowledge difference (Shiner, p. 384). As radical feminists of the past and present have rejected patriarchal notions of normativity, TERFs could be seen as radical in that they uphold the base assumptions within the regime of truth held by the patriarchy, using this once rejected claim of biological “truth” as their current stake in the broader, cultural discursive beliefs of biology and gender.
American author and professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Janice Raymond used her dissertation work to build a popular novel called the Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, in which the medical framework is used to undermine trans womanhood as being a superficial attempt at gender stereotypes. Her declarations are often echoed by current TERFs in their daily activism and are used to reduce trans identities to failures of medical and psychological sciences. She wrote that what she deemed “transsexual” surgery was a form of forced conformity; that it “encourages the individual to become an agreeable participant in a role-defined society” (Raymond, p. xvii). Examples of radical feminism’s positive contributions can be witnessed when Raymond offers that masculinity and femininity are social constructs, and what she admits are “stereotypes,” though the right to choose is absent in place of replication of these stereotypes within the biological constraints of the body (Raymond, p 3). Evidence of this can be substantiated somewhat through work about pre-language symbolic interaction in the social rearing of children in which female children are socialized very differently than are their male counters even prior to language formation (Fausto-Sterling, pp. 64-65). Though, to queer theory’s credit, Fausto-Sterling also asserts that humans in relation to gender are simply “active matter,” always in flux by way of the social forces around us (Fausto-Sterling, p. 65). In this way TERF language can be seen as having cherry picked the pieces of biology that best example the preferred discourse whiles ignoring other key parts of the nature of the social.
In a Foucauldian way one could theorize that the TERF stance on the womanhood question is a process of producing and presuming which takes place in what Foucault called self-organizing systems of knowledge (Armstrong, p. 29). Foucault believed in the power of the “statement,” a discourse of the laws and rules in defining an object’s possibilities (Armstrong, p. 34). The TERF statement is that biology defines the knowledge of men and women, that sexual variations are deformities, and that neither can be the other. This statement of biological essentialism had been the golden standard through most of known history in Western cultures. By choosing a powerful discourse, TERFs rely on many existing power relations that establish select groups by way of defining others out of the discourse. In this case, namely transgender women.
Discursive language and the formation of power
The language used by TERFs in their myriad activisms for legal actions can be examined as reinforcements of mainstream discourse, and subsequently as relying on existing power relations to legitimate the messages they reproduce. The arguments of Judith Butler interrogate the nature of language and its connection to injury and power. As explained by Kirby, Butler believes that we are beings who require language, that language itself has agency because we ascribe it so, and that words have transformative power both negative and positive (Kirby, p. 87). By adopting existing arguments that hold true within the mainstream discourse regarding sexuality and gender, TERFs are able to validate anti-trans commentary as “biological truth,” or a fight for “women’s rights.” In a queer way, one could examine the transgender subject from where Foucault called the human sciences, implicit rules which “govern” how objects or subjects are formed and their “position” (Shiner, p. 388). TERF language seems designed to reinforce the terms of the subject position of the biological female and to call this bio state woman, reifying discursive limits on inclusion within that social institution. Trans identifying folks are forced into a culturally created space, defined through normative processes, which challenges the queer theory assertion that we do not occupy any fixed or “stable” identity but rather occupy fluid identities that are formed in relation to the possibilities presented at that time and place (Barker, p. 57)
Another queer way to see this is to ponder the theoretical possibility that power does not merely rest in one set of hands; that power is a circulatory system much like our own biological bodies contain (Shiner, p. 390). It is in this context that one can see the back and forth play out from trans activists to TERFs and back again across the Western world. As transgender folk have begun to appear in the mainstream, and as rights-based, biological identity politics have had some effect on policies and local laws most notably in the form of bathroom or sports policies, a power exchange can be observed. Foucault theorized that power is the production site of reality, and from this perceptive space are formed “rituals of truth” (Shiner, p. 392) that become discursive practices, modes of behavior that influence all social interactions including the way we dress or how we organize our bodies (Kirby, p. 40). The transgender reaction may displace the notion of power to TERFs forcing a reactive activism based on born-female rights, but the dominant discourse still perpetuates the popular stereotypes of the socially constructed trans-persona, creating the sort of exclusion in mainstream spaces such as work and housing which perpetuate the disparities within this group.
In this work it has been expressed that TERFs are not a single, unified group, but rather are a diverse collection of variant peoples across many cultures who all prescribe to a similar discourse regarding the womanhood question. Through a post-structuralist lens, with the aid of mostly Michel Foucault and Judith Butler, this work has examined the main “statement” of TERF thought and activism, and through this queer approach has exampled the ways in which discursive language is employed to tap into a key power-knowledge conflict with transgender people based in the gender binary and the patriarchal definition of woman. Through the process of using certain elements of a dominant discourse, this work has attempted to show how TERFs such as Maya Forstater use these elements of male dominant belief structures to police trans bodies and “borrow” power from one discourse to validate “their” own. This essay has attempted to use “queer theories” such as Foucault’s ideas about power-knowledge and discourse as well as Butler’s ideas regarding language as the building blocks of available discursive possibilities to illustrate how knowledge is built around the social subject of woman within a TERF context. On the face, TERF ideals are the foundation of feminism, rooted in the protection of women and girls, and devoted to the rights this subjugated group fights for in the name of social equality. Through a queer lens one can explore how this particular discursive body could actually be guilty of creating social inequality by way of supporting social ideals that ignore the fluid “nature” of gender by imposing essentialist forms of knowledge that actually support the patriarchy.
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