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The TERF Wars, Part 1

Updated: Jun 14, 2020

Yesterday I was talking to my friend @le_petit_patito, and one of these beautiful moments happened in which both of us were so interested in the matter that I willingly went through the Wikipedia rabbit hole for five hours and came out -relatively- unscathed. Combined with peer-reviewed papers and newspaper articles, I think I kind of know what’s going on and my opinion of it. My friend and I are already all talked out, but since I have all this information compiled I thought I’d pull an all-nighter and gather it all. Little did I know that I would instead spend the rest of the night growling in pain, as it seems that I have some kind of avocado intolerance, which perhaps makes me into the ultimate anti-millennial.

When I finally got around to it, I realised I had way too much material, and so I decided to divide it into three parts.

  • Part 1 explains how the ideas that TERF upholds were brewed in the context of radical feminism in the 1970s and 1990s, way before Twitter was a thing.

  • Part 2 deals with the TERF online communities, the turmoil caused by J.K. Rowling in Twitter and analyses how the arguments of the online TERF collectives differ from the ones described in part 1.

  • Part 3 is a critique of the main argument used by the current TERF communities to support their transphobia and discloses a personal passion of mine: alternative biologies. (I know, what biology has to do with it? Well, keep reading, it does)


The acronymous TERF (Trans-exclusionary Radical Feminist) was coined by the writer Viv Smythe in 2008 within a feminist online community as a way to differentiate those radical feminists that exclude trans women and those who don’t. By “transgender” or “trans” we mean not only people who go through sex reassignment surgery, but also those who are treated with hormones, identify with a different gender than they were assigned at birth, or do not conform to a binary gender as is perceived in Western culture.

Although TERF is a relatively recent term, its history goes back to the 1970s and 1990s, with the writings of Janice Raymond and Sheila Jeffreys, who reject transsexual women as they did not consider they should be labelled as “women”. Janice Raymond claims that transsexuality perpetuates the patriarchal myth, and while identifying themselves with the category of “femininity”, trans people are appropriating the womanly body. In the case of Sheila Jeffreys, she too considers trans women as going through the motions of the patriarchy, but not in the sense of appropriating a women’s body as much as the fact that trans women are willingly buying into the female beauty ideal that has been imposed by society. What Jeffreys is contending is that trans women contribute to the very same gender roles that feminists have been fighting to erase for some 40 years.

Jeffreys and Raymond writings’ point to the interest in corporeality and embodiedness widely popular at the time, not only in feminist studies but also in philosophy and cultural studies. As Jeffreys and Raymond would have it, trans women were problematic because they perpetuate traditional female gender roles. While doing that, they conform to the patriarchy and use the womanly body as their battleground. As Barbara Kruger suggests, the female body is the place where wars take place. And history confirms that; from Hippocrates’ theory of the bodily humours, throughout the Renaissance’s interest in dissecting women corpses to discover “the mystery of the female body”, to the present struggle of abortion and reproductive rights, women’s bodies have always been in dispute.

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Your Body is a Battleground)

It is necessary to take into account than those women are contemporaries of Judith Butler, and as such, they are surely aware of the difference between sex and gender. Their wish is – as many other feminist collectives – to live in a world where gender does not exist. Jeffreys states that in a world without gender, people wouldn’t need to purchase sex reassignment surgery in the same manner as others purchase botox. According to Jeffreys, sex reassignment surgery is an extension of the beauty industry and used to conceal a much more complex problem.

However, isn’t it even more complex than that? I certainly think so. Living in a world without gender roles is surely gonna take more years than our lifespan, even if the present reader was a newborn baby. And despite all that, a trans person has to live in the here and now, in a foreign body. Gender roles are constructs, the same as other structures that can hardly be eliminated in a heartbeat (hello, capitalism). We can be against them, but we also have the right to live happy, fulfilling lives. Lives as happy and fulfilling as we can and the circumstances allow us. If sex reassignment surgery grants a sense of fulfilment to a person that already has little mental peace as it is, I categorically refuse to deny them that.

Furthermore, if the body is a battleground, a trans body is their battleground. And their fight. Let’s not fool ourselves thinking that us, or TERF, or any other collective fighting against them, in their battleground, is not another mode of appropriation similar as the one patriarchy historically made of the female body. In a world in which the abused becomes the abuser, little hope can we have for the future.


  • Smythe, Viv. “I’m credited with having coined the world ‘TERF’. Here’s how it happened.” The Guardian, November 28, 2018.

  • Earles, Jennifer, Crawley, Sara L., Bell, Elizabeth, Benford, Robert, and Loseke, Donileen. TERF Wars: Narrative Productions of Gender and Essentialism in Radical-Feminist (Cyber)spaces, 2017, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses.

  • Morris, Bonnie J. "The Hijacking of Lesbian History". The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide. 22, no. 4 (July–August 2015): 13–15.

  • Raymond, Janice G. The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1979)

  • Jeffreys, Sheila "Transgender activism: a lesbian feminist perspective". Journal of Lesbian Studies. 1, no. 3–4 (May 1997): 55–74.

  • Bindel, Julie "The ugly side of beauty," The Guardian, July 2, 2005.


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