TERF (//, also written terf) is an acronym for trans-exclusionary radical feminist. Coined in 2008, the term was originally applied to a minority of feminists espousing sentiments that other feminists consider transphobic, such as the rejection of the assertion that trans women are women, the exclusion of trans women from women's spaces, and opposition to transgender rights legislation. The meaning has since expanded to refer more broadly to people with trans-exclusionary views who may have no involvement with radical feminism.
Those referred to with the word TERF typically reject the term or consider it a slur; some identify themselves as gender critical. Critics of the word TERF say that it has been used in insults and alongside violent rhetoric. In academic discourse, there is no consensus on whether TERF constitutes a slur.
Coinage and usage
Trans-inclusive cisgender radical feminist blogger Viv Smythe has been credited with popularizing the term in 2008 as an online shorthand. It was used to describe a minority of feminists who espouse sentiments that other feminists consider transphobic, including the rejection of the view, predominant in feminist organizations, that trans women are women, opposition to transgender rights, and the exclusion of trans women in women's spaces and organizations.
On her transgender rights website, The TransAdvocate, Cristan Williams defined the term as referencing "a brand of 'radical feminism' that is so rooted in sex essentialism and its resulting biologism, it actively campaigns against the existence, equality, and/or inclusion of trans people." Smythe has been credited with having coined the term TERF, due to a blog post she wrote reacting to the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival's policy of denying admittance to trans women. She wrote that she rejected the alignment of all radical feminists with "trans-exclusionary radfem (TERF) activists". In a 2014 interview with The TransAdvocate, Smythe said:
It was meant to be a deliberately technically neutral description of an activist grouping. We wanted a way to distinguish TERFs from other RadFems with whom we engaged who were trans*-positive/neutral, because we had several years of history of engaging productively/substantively with non-TERF RadFems.
While Smythe initially used TERF to refer to a particular type of feminist whom she characterized as "unwilling to recognise trans women as sisters", she has noted that the term has taken on additional connotations, and that it has been "weaponised at times" by both inclusionary and exclusionary groups. Though contested, the term has since become an established part of contemporary feminist speech.
Writing in The New York Times in 2019, feminist theorist Sophie Lewis noted that the term TERF had become "a catchall for all anti-transgender feminists, regardless of whether they are radical". Edie Miller, writing in The Outline, said that the term was applied to "most people espousing trans-exclusionary politics that follow a particular 'TERF logic', regardless of their involvement with radical feminism". The term TERFy has also been used to describe things "that queer millennials deem uncool" such as bangs.
Opposition to the word
Feminists described as TERFs generally object to the term and sometimes refer to themselves as gender critical. British columnist Sarah Ditum wrote in 2017 that "the bar to being called a 'terf' is remarkably low."
Some self-described gender critical feminists say they cannot accurately be described as trans-exclusionary because they say they are inclusive of trans men. Some critics have called this reasoning "divisive and contradictory" and say that it represents "transmisogynist ideology".
In a 2015 article, American feminist scholar Bonnie J. Morris argued that TERF was initially a legitimate analytical term but quickly developed into a defamatory word associated with sexist insults. She described the word as "emblematic of the unresolved tensions between our LGBT community's L and T factions" and called on scholars and journalists to stop using it.
Feminist author Claire Heuchan argues that the word is often used alongside "violent rhetoric". Heuchan adds that language of this type is used to "dehumanise women", often lesbians. Sociologist David Pilgrim writes that phrases like "Kill a TERF!" or "Punch a TERF!" are also posted by trolls online and there have been other depictions of violence aimed at women labeled as TERFs.
The 2018 All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Hate Crime received several submissions that indicated a high degree of tension between trans activists and feminist groups opposed to transgender rights legislation, with both sides detailing incidents of extreme or abusive language. The report noted that some women had submitted reports which argued that "women who object to the inclusion of trans women as female are being attacked both online and, in the street, with the term 'trans-exclusionary radical feminist' or (TERF) being used as a term of abuse."
The people at whom the word TERF is directed often characterize it as a slur or hate speech. In a July 2018 solicitation of essays regarding "transgender identities", British magazine The Economist required writers to "avoid all slurs, including TERF", stating that the word is used to try to silence opinions and sometimes incite violence.
Transgender rights activist and philosophy of language professor Rachel McKinnon has maintained the word is not a slur. She argues that merely being "a term used to denigrate women" does not make a word a slur, that being "an absurd, nonsensical view of the nature of slurs".
In August 2018, seven British philosophers wrote on the website Daily Nous that two articles by Rachel McKinnon and Jason Stanley published in the journal Philosophy and Phenomenological Research normalized the term. They described the term as "at worst a slur and at best derogatory", and argued that the term had been used to denigrate those "who disagree with the dominant narrative on trans issues". In response, Ernest Sosa, the journal's editor in chief, stated that scholars consulted by the journal advised that the term "might evolve to become a slur", but that its use as a denigrating term in some contexts was still "compatible with its having a descriptive meaning".
In a 2020 paper published in the philosophy journal Grazer Philosophische Studien, linguists Christopher Davis and Elin McCready argue that three properties make a term a slur: it must be derogatory towards a particular group, it must be used to subordinate them within some structure of power relations, and the derogated group must be defined by an intrinsic property. Davis and McCready write that the term TERF satisfies the first condition, fails the third condition, and that the second condition is contentious, in that it depends on how each group sees itself in relation to the other group.
Author Andrea Long Chu describes the claim that TERF is a slur as "a grievance that would be beneath contempt if it weren't also true, in the sense that all bywords for bigots are intended to be defamatory."
Feminist philosopher Talia Mae Bettcher argues that, regardless of whether the term is accurately classified as a slur, it "has at least become offensive to those designated by the term", which suggests it might be best to avoid "in case one wants to have a conversation across deep difference".
|Look up TERF in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
- Smythe, Viv (28 November 2018). "I'm credited with having coined the word 'Terf'. Here's how it happened". The Guardian. Retrieved 13 April 2019.
Due to a short series of blogposts from 2008, I have retrospectively been credited as the coiner of the acronym "Terf" (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists) ... a shorthand to describe one cohort of feminists who self-identify as radical and are unwilling to recognise trans women as sisters, unlike those of us who do.
- Lewis, Sophie (7 February 2019). "Opinion | How British Feminism Became Anti-Trans". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 5 May 2019.
If the idea that transphobic harassment could be “feminist” bewilders you, you are not alone. ... With time, the term TERF has become a catchall for all anti-trans feminists, radical or not.
- Miller, Edie (5 November 2018). "Why Is British Media So Transphobic?". The Outline. Retrieved 3 May 2019.
The truth is, while the British conservative right would almost certainly be more than happy to whip up a frenzy of transphobia, they simply haven’t needed to, because some sections of the left over here are doing their hate-peddling for them. The most vocal source of this hatred has emerged, sadly, from within circles of radical feminists. British feminism has an increasingly notorious TERF problem. ... The application of the term has shifted somewhat over time to encompass most people espousing trans-exclusionary politics that follow a particular “TERF logic,” regardless of their involvement with radical feminism.
- Vasquez, Tina (17 February 2014). "It's Time to End the Long History of Feminism Failing Transgender Women". Bitch. Bitch Media. Retrieved 13 April 2019.
[Cathy] Brennan, fellow attorney Elizabeth Hungerford, and other modern-day feminists continue to actively question the inclusion of trans people in women’s spaces. These feminists refer to themselves as “radical feminists” or “gender critical feminists.” In 2008, trans women and trans advocates started referring to this group as “trans-exclusionary radical feminists” or TERFs, a term Brennan considers a slur.
- Bennett, Catherine (19 November 2017). "Bullies everywhere delight in coming up with new insults". The Guardian.
the advance of terf, as a bullying tool, has already succeeded in repressing speech – and maybe even research ... ugly terf, fucking terf scum
- Heuchan, Claire (6 October 2017). "If feminist Linda Bellos is seen as a risk, progressive politics has lost its way". The Guardian.
Terf stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist. Online, it often it [sic] appears alongside violent rhetoric: punch a Terf, stab a Terf, kill a Terf. This language is used to dehumanise women who are critical of gender as part of a political system.
- Allen, Sophie R.; Finneron-Burns, Elizabeth; Leng, Mary; Lawford-Smith, Holly; Jones, Jane Clare; Reilly-Cooper, Rebecca; Simpson, R. J. (24 September 2018). "On an Alleged Case of Propaganda: Reply to McKinnon" (PDF).
representative examples of derogatory uses of the term: ‘kill all TERFs’; ‘shoot a terf today’; ‘all TERFs deserve to be shot in the head’; ‘somebody slap this TERF c*nt across the face’; ‘literally kill all TERFs’ ... To summarize, we’ve considered three specific accounts of slurs, Anderson and Lepore’s account which appeals to whether those targeted by the term take it to be a slur, Nunberg’s account on which slurs signal in-group membership, and Swanson’s account on which slurs cue harmful ideologies. We’ve argued that ‘TERF’ is a slur on all three of the specific accounts surveyed.Cite journal requires
- Flaherty, Colleen (29 August 2018). "'TERF' War – Philosophers object to a journal's publication 'TERF,' in reference to some feminists. Is it really a slur?". Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved 12 April 2019.
While the term has become controversial over time, especially with its often hateful deployment on social media, it originally described a subgroup of feminists who believe that the interests of cisgender women (those who are born with vaginas) don’t necessarily intersect with those of transgender women (primarily those born with penises)...TERF 'is widely used across online platforms as a way to denigrate and dismiss the women (and some men) who disagree with the dominant narrative on trans issues...Targeted groups include 'lesbians who merely maintain that same-sex attraction is not equivalent to transphobia,' and 'women who believe that women’s oppression is sex-based, and are concerned about erasing the political importance of female bodies...."
- McKinnon, Rachel (7 March 2018). "The Epistemology of Propaganda" (PDF). Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. 96 (2): 483–489. doi:10.1111/phpr.12429.
many contemporary TERFs accuse trans women of coining the phrase/term—and, ludicrously, claim that ‘TERF’ is a misogynistic slur. ... The idea—it seems to be—is that ‘TERF’ is a term used to denigrate women, and so it is a slur. However, this is an absurd, nonsensical view of the nature of slurs.
- Stryker, Susan; Bettcher, Talia (2016). "Introduction: Trans/Feminisms". Transgender Studies Quarterly. Duke University Press. 3 (1–2). doi:10.1215/23289252-3334127. Retrieved 17 September 2020.
- Dastagir, Alia (16 March 2017). "A feminist glossary because we didn't all major in gender studies". USA Today. Retrieved 24 April 2019.
TERF: The acronym for 'trans exclusionary radical feminists,' referring to feminists who are transphobic.
- Bollinger, Alex (19 December 2018). "Famous lesbian site taken over by anti-trans 'feminists'. Now lesbian media is standing up". www.lgbtqnation.com. Retrieved 5 June 2019.
- O'Connell, Jennifer (26 January 2019). "Transgender for beginners: Trans, terf, cis and safe spaces". The Irish Times. Retrieved 24 April 2019.
- Dalbey, Alex (12 August 2018). "TERF wars: Why trans-exclusionary radical feminists have no place in feminism". The Daily Dot. Retrieved 27 January 2019.
- Williams, Cristan (24 September 2013). "You might be a TERF if ..." The TransAdvocate.
- Williams, Cristan (1 May 2016). "Radical Inclusion: Recounting the Trans Inclusive History of Radical Feminism". TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly. Duke University Press. 3 (1–2): 254–258. doi:10.1215/23289252-3334463.
- Hines, Sally (17 February 2019). "The feminist frontier: on trans and feminism". Journal of Gender Studies. 28 (2): 145–157. doi:10.1080/09589236.2017.1411791. ISSN 0958-9236. S2CID 149145967.
- Wilson, Lena (16 August 2018). "Do I Have to Give Up Lesbian History to Participate in Queer Culture?". Slate.
TERF, as an insult, has become so far removed from its original activist intentions (rightly criticizing trans exclusion in feminism) that, at this point, it’s also a word for anything that queer millennials deem uncool. Things I’ve seen called “TERFy” on Twitter and Tumblr include tampon ads, the word “female,” the non-word “womxn,” Janelle Monae’s “Pynk,” the Venus symbol, bangs, Jill Stein, Cardi B, and … trans women.
- Goldberg, Michelle (9 December 2015). "The Trans Women Who Say That Trans Women Aren't Women". Slate. Retrieved 12 April 2019.
- Ditum, Sarah (29 September 2017). "What is a Terf? How an internet buzzword became a mainstream slur". New Statesman. Retrieved 13 April 2019.
On the other hand, if you are a feminist, the bar to being called a 'terf' is remarkably low. Woman's Hour presenter Jenni Murray achieved it by writing an article in which she pointed out that someone born and raised male will not have the same experiences of sexism as a woman; novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie likewise made the grade by answering 'transwomen are transwomen' when asked whether she believed that 'transwomen are women'.
- Flaherty, Colleen (29 August 2018). "'TERF' War – Philosophers object to a journal's publication 'TERF,' in reference to some feminists. Is it really a slur?". Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved 12 April 2019.
Allen objected ... 'most radical feminists who are apparently described' by the term TERF are inclusive of trans men, and so are not 'trans-exclusionary' anyway, she said.
- Kennedy, Natacha (15 December 2016). "Anti-Trans Activism – Not What It Seems". Progress. Archived from the original on 11 May 2017. Retrieved 29 April 2019.
Beyond that, it's also entirely inaccurate, radical feminism is inclusionary of trans men (who are female by birth), it only excludes males—as a female liberation movement ...
- Erickson-Schroth, Laura (12 May 2014). Trans Bodies, Trans Selves: A Resource for the Transgender Community. Oxford University Press. p. 568–569. ISBN 978-0199325351.
Some feminists have perceived transmasculine people as traitors—that is, as women who identify politically with men. When inclusive of trans men, these feminists have often gendered them as women. Conversely, these feminists have tended to perceive transfeminine people as infiltrators of womanhood and of women's space. Many commentators refer to feminists who think in these ways as 'trans-exclusionary radical feminists' (TERFs). ...'The fetishistic (often infantalizing [sic]) embrace of trans men by lesbian communities is ungendering, othering, and transphobic.'
- Wylder, Danelle; Westing, Corrie (21 August 2018). "Terfs Have No Place on the Left". Socialist Worker. Archived from the original on 3 May 2019. Retrieved 28 April 2019.
It is worth noting, however, the divisive and contradictory position they held, wherein trans men were allowed on the land because TERFs considered them 'women-born' as part of their transmisogynist ideology.
- Morris, Bonnie J. (July–August 2015). "The Hijacking of Lesbian History". The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide. Vol. 22 no. 4. pp. 13–15.
TERF is an important new slur, emblematic of the unresolved tensions between our LGBT community's L and T factions. ... It began as a legitimate means of isolating and critiquing the work of a very few controversial feminist authors, namely Janice Raymond and Sheila Jeffreys ... TERF is a unique new insult for non-transgender lesbians by other LGBT activists, and it bears monitoring. Those women relegated to the TERF bin of bad feminism are now being subjected to traditional sexist canards, including charges of unattractiveness, mental instability, and penis envy. ... My charge to every responsible editor, journalist, feminist scholar, and LGBT historian is to please stop recycling the acronym TERF; it is defamatory.p. 13, p. 14, p. 15
- Bennett, Catherine (29 April 2018). "Violent misogyny is unfortunately not confined to the internet's 'incels'". The Guardian.
Photographs of one vitrine, featuring a red bespattered T-shirt reading: “I punch terfs!” (trans-exclusionary radical feminists/women who disagree with me), may have struck a chord with anyone following the current UK debate about the government’s self-ID proposals. To date, threats, from one side, which echo, inescapably, some of those in the pro-Rodger playbook (“die in a fire terf scum”) have yet to generate comparably widespread concern, even after a woman was punched. Her assailant had earlier expressed the wish to “fuck up some terfs”.
- "Claire Heuchan". Glasgow International. 30 January 2018. Retrieved 5 October 2019.
- Pilgrim, David (20 October 2018). "The transgender controversy: a reply to Summersell". Journal of Critical Realism. 17 (5): 523–528. doi:10.1080/14767430.2018.1539825. ISSN 1476-7430.
- All Party Parliamentary Group on Hate Crime (2019). "How Do We Build Community Cohesion When Hate Crime Is On The Rise?" (PDF). House of Commons of the United Kingdom. p. 25. Retrieved 2 November 2019.
- Compton, Julie (14 January 2019). "'Pro-lesbian' or 'trans-exclusionary'? Old animosities boil into public view". NBC News. Retrieved 19 March 2019.
- Goldberg, Michelle (4 August 2014). "What Is a Woman?". The New Yorker. Retrieved 20 November 2015.
TERF stands for 'trans-exclusionary radical feminist.' The term can be useful for making a distinction with radical feminists who do not share the same position, but those at whom it is directed consider it a slur.
- "Transgender identities: a series of invited essays". The Economist. 29 June 2018. Retrieved 19 March 2019.
In the interests of fostering open debate we have set ground rules, both for essays and reader comments: use the pronouns people want you to use, and avoid all slurs, including TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist), which may have started as a descriptive term but is now used to try to silence a vast swathe of opinions on trans issues, and sometimes to incite violence against women.
- "Transgender women in sport: Are they really a 'threat' to female sport?". BBC Sport. 18 December 2018.
- Stanley, Jason (7 March 2018). "Replies". Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. 96 (2): 497–511. doi:10.1111/phpr.12427.
- Weinberg, Justin (27 August 2018). "Derogatory Language in Philosophy Journal Risks Increased Hostility and Diminished Discussion". Daily Nous. Retrieved 19 March 2019.
- Davis, Christopher; McCready, Elin (4 March 2020). "The Instability of Slurs". Grazer Philosophische Studien. Brill Publishers. 97: 63–85. doi:10.1163/18756735-09701005. Retrieved 25 March 2020.
- Chu, Andrea Long (Winter 2018). "On Liking Women". N+1 Magazine (30).
They also don’t much like the name TERF, which they take to be a slur—a grievance that would be beneath contempt if it weren’t also true, in the sense that all bywords for bigots are intended to be defamatory.
- Bettcher, Talia Mae (November 2017). "Trans Feminism: Recent Philosophical Developments". Philosophy Compass. 12 (17): 7. doi:10.1111/phc3.12438.
Part of the issue, however, concerns whether the expression continues to be used as a mere abbreviation for a description of a position (i.e., Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminist) as it was originally coined or whether it has also acquired a derogatory use. The issues here are delicate ... it seems that caution should at least be deployed in case one wants to have a conversation across deep difference. This seems particularly important since much of trans politics is deeply committed to the importance of self-naming and respect for self-identities.