What Do TERFs Want That They Don’t Already Have?

Photo by Morgan Basham

Clara Barnhurst

I don’t understand TERFs. They speak of protecting feminine rights, but when I look into the rights they seek to protect, nobody is disputing them. They talk about gender being strictly determined by body configuration, but then say we shouldn’t let our bodies define us. They have a strong media platform but their actual supporters appear to be as marginal as the incel movement. The only consistency they have is their hatred.

I understand that my perception of them is Anglocentric. In America, TERFs are getting more powerful thanks to funding from Christian hate groups. I’m quite worried that they will facilitate a repeat of the Reagan years with regard to transgender health care. But in the UK, TERFs seem to be sound and fury, signifying nothing.

We hear more and more TERFs speaking over media outlets. Big established outfits like the BBC are all too happy to give them a spot to spread their agenda. Why? In the UK, they’ve been branded a hate group in all but law. Their rallies and symposia are plagued with last minute cancellations and counter protests. What’s particularly bizarre is they complain about being stripped of a platform on mainstream media.

It makes sense when you look at your average TERF: white, usually monied background. Educated, usually prestigiously — Oxbridge or similar. These women come from the most privileged subgroup of women. They are well connected and have access to mainstream media. They are getting a platform through that privilege, not because what they say is necessarily popular — in many cases, it’s just the opposite.

That privilege means that basically TERFs have no real stake in what’s happening. Even if feminine rights are eroded in society, they are insulated from that. So why are they involved? In this case, it appears that they’re in it for the solidarity. They don’t have to care about feminine rights. They don’t need to be interested in transgender people, nor do they perceive any threat. But transgender people are vulnerable. TERFs can attack transgender folk without consequence and bond over their collective hatred.


If this is about bonding over a common hatred, then the cruelty of it all is the point. It’s about terrorising a minority; gender’s answer to the Klu Klux Klan. It also means that they don’t have to make sense: all they have to do is scare moderately-minded cisgender women into joining TERFs in anger.

Mumsnet is the ultimate expression of TERF sorority. Their comments are almost a rivalry for who can say the most hateful thing; there is a culture of hatred that makes them feel part of something bigger. They have a framework that connects them and an activity they all share. A league of their own where terror is the sport.

There are stark parallels between communities like Mumsnet and toxic masculine communities like incels. Both are united against an imagined enemy. Both require a certain amount of psychological buying in. Both are insulated from the outside world; they keep to themselves on their own networks. And they both attack targets they find as one. Both groups precipitate real harm against their targets.

The issues aren’t the thing with these people. Incels don’t care about feminism any more than TERFs do. White supremacists don’t care about racism, they care about sharing their hate. Hate groups bond through enacting hatred. It doesn’t matter what they hate. Theirs isn’t a political agenda. It’s a game.

No category of humans is immune to this kind of toxicity. Transgender people unite in their hatred as well; I’ve encountered transgender people that hate crossdressers and target them in similar ways. I’ve encountered transgender people that believed no cisgender person would ever accept them, that transgender people who sought validation from cisgender people were fooling themselves and any transgender people who did so were class traitors. They’re the same as the TERFs: united in hate, bonding through the enactment of that hate. What they hate is unimportant.

So how do we engage with these people? Honestly, we don’t. We work to immunise the moderate majority so that these marginal groups stay marginal. We remain intolerant of intolerance. As when fighting any scam, we educate people about the scam and we organise against their hatred until they don’t feel safe enacting it anymore.

That might sound idealistic, but really it’s pragmatic. Nobody is going to persuade Mumsnet to change their behaviour. They’re too invested in the community of hatred; their habits are formed. But if we make their network unacceptable anywhere else, it will shrink as the more moderately-minded people fall away. The crazier we can make them sound to the mainstream, the less power they have.


As much as I would like to think that a dialogue is possible with TERFs, I know that it’s not possible. If they actually had an issue to fight for, it might be. If they wanted to do more than victimise transgender people for their own sense of solidarity, I’d be all for engaging them in conversation on the issues. There are simply no issues. All their talk is a carefully constructed campaign to recruit more people. To groom them.

The paradox is, in order to combat grooming, we do have to take them on using the issues they raise. It’s just that actually talking to them isn’t going to help because the issues are a smokescreen. This isn’t about who is right. It’s about who can reach whom first.

And that is something TERFs have demonstrated: they can reach people first. In vast numbers. Their connections and privilege allowed them to advance their platform beyond what many of those fighting them can hope to match, and it shows little sign of stalling. At least on TV.

What gives me hope is how difficult they’re finding it to actually meet in public. Sure, they can cause trouble on the BBC, but they struggle to do so in the street. They are unwelcome, even if they have a platform. I can only have faith that, like in the UK, Americans will reject this nonsense as they rattle their cages. An empty wagon makes a lot of noise, and whatever else TERFs may be, they’re not ones to go quietly.

Comments (1)
No. 1-1

A point I make often, they are happy to throw other cis women under a bus as long as trans women are hurt. Because they think their privilege will protect them from the consequences of their actions.

Of course they scream when they are personally harmed. Julian Vigo is a classic, long against trans kids and had a meltdown (on Counterpunch no less) when a rad fem conference stopped her bringing her 5 yo son to it....

So they are happy for GNC cis women to be harassed for 'looking like men'. They'd be happy (for awhile) if Hopkins vs Price Waterhouse was overturned (and similar in other countries).

Sure if you pinned them down, the more thoughtful amongst them will admit it will harm a lot of women, in fact the majority ..but it is not going to bother them ..they think

Hence why they find it so easy to ally with right wing, religious orgs who are virulently against women's rights. So what if Planned Parenthood is banned, they will get their contraception, abortions and sexual and reproductive medical care just fine.

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