Western feminism has long had a problem with inclusivity. In its first wave, some leaders of the movement thought that eugenics were a good idea. They cast out women who were not considered sufficiently Christian. Later, in the second and third waves, feminism didn’t consider the needs of women of colour. Now there are some feminists at the fringe who won’t acknowledge that trans people have a right to live as the gender they’re meant to be.
That’s not my position, and I’d hope not the position of most feminists. I believe that trans women are women, and trans men are men. I’m thrilled to see the gains made by the trans community – for example, the U.S. is finally issuing passports that offer an alternative to the male/female gender binary. (Canada’s had a third option for two years.) But I worry that there’s a war on trans people’s rights happening in parts of Europe and North America.
In April, CNN reported that “Thirty-three states have introduced more than 100 bills that aim to curb the rights of transgender people across the country, with advocacy groups calling 2021 a record-breaking year for such legislation.” In local campaigns, such as the Virginia governor’s race, conservative candidates are using anti-trans rhetoric to scare parents into believing there’s some kind of non-binary epidemic overtaking schools. Anti-LGBTQ movements are spreading across Poland and Hungary, promoted by far-right politicians who also want to roll back legal protections.
In these situations, feminists and trans folk should be natural allies fighting a common enemy: oppressive patriarchal structures that favour retaining power for the same people as usual; an exploitative economic system; racial injustice. There should be power in numbers. And we can certainly all agree that Dave Chappelle is no friend to trans people or feminists alike. In his controversial new special The Closer, the comedian may call himself a “terf” – a trans-exclusionary radical feminist – but if he’s a feminist then I’m a pineapple.
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Here’s where things become sticky, because it seems that instead of fighting the common enemy, trans folk and feminists have ended up in an intransigent, bitter battle over words instead. “Terf” is one of those words, and “woman” is the other.
Terf is a word that dates back more than a dozen years, and once was an apt description, referring to feminists who believed that biological sex could not be changed, and even if it were, the transition did not reflect women’s lived experience. Now, it’s become a lazy insult hurled at anyone who raises any questions around sex and gender. There are many women who don’t speak up at all for fear of being branded a “terf.” I’m sure to be branded a terf for merely raising this issue, though my feminism is not at all trans exclusionary.
Worse, there is now a movement to conflating “terf” or “gender-critical” feminism with fascism, as recently proposed by the academic Judith Butler in The Guardian. She rightly suggests that feminists and trans people should be allies, but then excoriates those whose beliefs don’t align with hers. It seems to me one of the best ways of driving people away from a peace accord is accusing them of being fascists.
The situation has become so weird and twisted that the majority of people (i.e., those who do not consult their social-media feeds upon waking) might wonder why two progressive movements are eating each other alive. Why, for example, are people branding Margaret Atwood – a fighter for women’s rights on and off the page – a terf? As it turns out, her crime was to retweet a newspaper column about how the word “woman” is disappearing. The bitterness directed against her was staggering. Sometimes it seems the bitterness is the point; it’s a satisfying and quick sugar rush, compared with the tedious and drawn-out work of listening and understanding.
This brings us to our most contentious word of the day, woman. Is “woman” being erased from the language, as many progressive feminists and right-wing pundits claim? (This is an unholy alliance, to be sure.) I’ll admit that, at first, I was worried too. I’ve spent my adult life as a feminist, and when I saw “birthing people” instead of women I wondered if the world of men would have its way after all, subjugating us in real life and erasing us from the language, too. There would be two groups left: men, and people.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how selfish and inaccurate that position is. Our language is infinitely flexible. Often its adaptations are an attempt to draw in and welcome people who were hurt or excluded by outdated words. We are constantly updating and finessing language to recognize new realities, and one of the new realities is that trans men and non-binary people can have babies, can menstruate and lactate. It doesn’t take away from women to acknowledge that reality. It doesn’t take away from women’s ability to do those things. You are still women breastfeeding, but you might not be the only people in the breastfeeding class. How is it harmful to acknowledge that?
We live in a world of grey shades – a non-binary world, if you like, full of subtlety. The words “women” and “menstruating people” can co-exist, even in the same paragraph. Not all feminists who have questions are terfs. It would be nice to be able to discuss these issues without screaming, and maybe even make peace, so that we can move forward together.
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