TERF is a slur just as breeder is a slur

(TW for transphobia, references to violence)

It’s becoming painfully obvious that the introduction that most people will have to the acronym TERF is by white media feminists decrying it as a slur.

TERF – literally ‘Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist’ – has been in use for some time now in social justice spaces, especially online, where acronyms come easy. It is used to acknowledge that there are many individuals who identify as radical feminists and may have been involved in the movement for a long time, but who are also fully inclusive of trans people (specifically trans women) in their feminism. It is important to make this distinction, because there are also radical feminists – with significant platforms and influence – who argue, or have argued, that (medical) transition is a form of self-harm and is akin to reparative therapy for homosexuality; that trans women should be denied access to women’s bathrooms and support services; that transition itself is buying into patriarchal notions of gender and therefore is inherently harmful.

So, the term TERF is now commonly used to identify these people, and others with sympathetic viewpoints, who have the potential to cause ACTUAL GENUINE HARM to trans people (both in attempting to remove much-needed healthcare and also in contributing to society’s already shitty attitudes to trans people that result in violence and discrimination).

It is probably not surprising then, that when the term is used, it is often in a distinctly negative context. To the extent that some people (remember – people who are actively harmed by TERFs) might even use it in anger. I went looking for examples here but honestly there aren’t any currently on twitter. This is the current search result: (I deleted IDs because some accounts are protected, but feel free to check the search now)

Search results for "TERF" on twitter on 07/07/14

Search results for “TERF” on twitter on 07/07/14

But of course, this is just twitter, and most of the people using the term in this image do not have mainstream media platforms. And I worry that unless you pay close attention to intersectional feminist discourse, the likelihood is that you may only come across the term when a prominent feminist, who has had the term used to describe her, claims that it is a slur. And I’ve been pondering what it would actually mean if it was.

In the interests of accuracy, I checked the dictionary definition and the most relevant would be “An insinuation or allegation about someone that is likely to insult them or damage their reputation”. So in this sense, TERF could be a slur if you were, say, in a position to give advice or draft policy relating to LGBT people (which, sadly, is the case for some TERFs, but certainly not all that consider the term a slur).

But really I think what people are getting at is the idea that it might be a slur in the way that n****r or t****y or r****d is a slur. That the word itself causes harm by being used as an insult. And I just don’t buy it. In the same way that reverse-racism and reverse-sexism do not exist, discrimination against cis people is not a thing, and therefore you cannot cause harm by insulting someone for being cis. Specifically, trans people can call cis people whatever they like and it will never be harmful in the way that t****y is harmful to trans people.

Extract from p.46 of Is Everyone Really Equal? An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education (Ozlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo) that reads: "STOP: There is no such thing as reverse racism or reverse sexism (or the reverse of any form of oppression). While women can be just as prejudiced as men, women cannot be "just as sexist as men" because they do not hold political, economic and institutional power. "

Extract from p.46 of Is Everyone Really Equal? An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education (Ozlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo) that reads: “STOP: There is no such thing as reverse racism or reverse sexism (or the reverse of any form of oppression). While women can be just as prejudiced as men, women cannot be “just as sexist as men” because they do not hold political, economic and institutional power. “

And I thought about similar terms that are used in vaguely insulting ways against people in positions of power, like cracker for white people, or any number of penis-based insults for men. I couldn’t actually think of one for cis people, I don’t think any exist, but I perhaps I only hang out with nice people. And then I landed on one that has been used in LGBT circles before, particularly when it wasn’t possible for homosexual people to access adoption or reproductive services; when heterosexual people were disparagingly referred to as “breeders”. I personally haven’t heard it used this millennium, but it’s probably floating around out there among some small groups. And I think it satisfies the criteria of being 1) literally true (in that straight people are the ones who breed the most); 2) often used in a generally negative light by people who are oppressed along a certain axis; and 3) completely fucking irrelevant when it comes to discussing harm.

So while I fundamentally disagree that TERF is a slur, since it is used to accurately describe people who hold negative and harmful views about trans people, I also would argue that even if it was, it simply doesn’t matter. Because the term TERF has never and will never be levelled at someone while they are having their head kicked in, or their housing revoked, or their healthcare denied.

ETA: it was pointed out to me that, of course, “breeder” has also been used against bisexuals, and the biphobia of the wider LGBT movement is very harmful indeed. I intentionally left us bi folk out of this one for brevity. Alas no analogy is perfect.

Advertisements

Being bisexual and dating a trans person

A while ago, I was on a panel attempting to answer questions from cis people about trans issues. As the partner of a trans activist, and someone who runs a community group for allies, I was trying to be the voice of someone who will never know how it feels to be trans, but has spent a lot of time thinking about trans issues.

One of the questions was about whether it undermines a trans man’s identity for a woman to say “I am into butch women and trans men”. I didn’t comment on the panel as that is not the situation I am in, although I couldn’t resist popping into the comments as the discussion was varied and interesting. But what I’ve been thinking about since then is possibly more controversial:

I am bisexual[1], and I think that has made it easier for me to date a trans person.

I fully expect that there will be many trans people who find that statement offensive, and as undermining their gender, but I honestly don’t believe that it does. Allow me to explain.

As someone who identifies as bisexual, I have, when considering sexual and romantic relationships, actively thought about different genders. Before I was aware of the gender binary (and thus people who identify outside of it) I considered relationships with men and women. Through this, I avoided fixating on specific roles, or body parts, or sex acts, which I am certain that my monosexual friends have been attached to. Yes, I fantasised about strong arms wrapped around me, but I also fantasised about my strong arms wrapped around another person. I imagined different bodies and varied sex acts that those bodies would engage in (gawd, I hope my mother isn’t reading this).

Until recent years, when I became more informed about the variety of sex that is available to us, especially to people who are outside of the hetero-cis-sexual mainstream, I used to have a weird dissonance with how I defined sex. With the weight of our cultural fixation on the importance of virginity as the act of a penis penetrating a vagina, I took that – as most of society still does – to be THE sex act of any importance. But as I was also interested in women, without examining this assumption, I instead simply had a different definition of sex depending on whether I was talking about being with a woman or a man. What I considered to be sex with a woman was simply classified as foreplay with a man. This seems absurd to me now, but I had no framework or vocabulary to describe my experience as a bisexual person[2], and so I defaulted to what popular culture told me, which was that PIV[3] sex counts, and nothing else is really worth noting[4].

But despite my inability to describe my experiences and what I imagined, these issues highlight that I was at least thinking and trying to talk about different sex acts and different bodies. As it turned out, the major relationships in my life until my current one – and thus the vast majority of my sexual experience – have been with cis men. When I met my current partner I had never been intimate with a trans person, and I had never discussed sex with anyone who could speak to the experience.

I was nervous the first time I saw my partner naked (as was he!). Twenty seven years of being told there are only two basic ways for bodies to be weighed heavily and I was genuinely worried about what my internal response would be to seeing a body which I knew was going to be unlike any I’d ever seen before. A few years later, having immersed myself in trans and queer culture and writing, I am far less hung up on such trivial things as what configuration of genitals someone has. But at that time, it was a monumental moment for us both. And I genuinely think that it was easier for me (and thus, us as a couple), because I was already familiar with different bodies.

I think the very fact of being attracted to more than one gender makes it easier to be open to the possibility of being attracted to someone who has a differently configured body than the mainstream would tell us is available. That is not to say that monosexual (gay/straight) people don’t have relationships with trans people, who may have had varying amounts of medical intervention (or none). But I can’t help thinking that it must be more difficult to do that if you have spent your entire life being conditioned to wanting someone who is either big, strong, hairy, masculine, and has a penis, or small, dainty, gentle, feminine and has a vulva. However much we may personally reject gender stereotypes, they are everywhere we look, and virtually impossible to escape. The stereotypes of how our bodies should be are so fundamental and insidious as to be invisible unless you have reason to look.

But then, even the staunchest monosexual person (a Kinsey 1 or 7), must have some gender markers that they don’t care about in a partner? You might be attracted to men/masculine people but not care about hairiness, or tallness, or a deep voice. But there’s a line somewhere. At what point does someone’s gender stop falling within the boundaries of what you find attractive? I’d love to have some answers to this because as someone who isn’t monosexual, I can’t really imagine what it must be like to be utterly tied to my partner having a certain look, smell or arrangement of genitalia.

I’d like to end by adding that this is resolutely NOT the same as certain small, vocal groups of people who seek to create new categories for trans people in order to exclude them from their sexuality (e.g. ‘lesbian’ and ‘trans-lesbian’). While I recognise that my life history probably makes it easier for me to adapt to different body types than people who have never considered dating someone who isn’t cis, I do not believe that it is ever acceptable to police somebody’s genitalia and body on the basis of whether they fit into a certain, socially-acceptable mould (which applies to sex with everyone really, not just trans people!)

And finally, I found this poem when I first started dating my partner, and it articulated things which I couldn’t have: How to make love to a trans person


[1]Which I define as: I am attracted to people with the same gender as me, and different gender to me. No binary implied.
back to text

[2] At the same time, I had so internalised the biphobia around me, that I absolutely refused to wear “bisexual” as a label. I would literally identify as straight one week, and gay the next. So thanks, culture, for that. (Hence being so bloody vocal about it now, too!)
back to text

[3] Penis-in-vagina. Does what it says on the tin.
back to text

[4] Indeed, there was no age of consent for same-sex sexual acts between women until 2001 in the UK, by which time I was 17.
back to text

Are the cis supremacists winning?

An excellent piece written by Stavvers, Are the cis supremacists winning? calls out to other cis feminists to stand by our trans siblings and fight the cissexist crap and cries of censorship.

So cis feminist readers, I ask you to join with me in fighting the rising tide of cis supremacy. It is not acceptable. Be a fucking ally. Stand with your trans sisters in solidarity, and don’t let this slide. We have a huge struggle ahead of us, against a structure many of us have internalised, but if we are to win anything, we must first attack the problem within our ranks.

I’m standing.

Trans suicide

This article was originally published at PinkNews.

TransBareAll are crowdfunding a project to produce support materials to prevent suicide. Please donate anything you can.


[Trigger warnings: suicide, transphobia]

I recently wrote about Trans “regret”, with sarcastic quote marks in the title to highlight that this mainstream trope is not supported by data. No such quote marks are required here, as the high rates of suicide are a very real and desperate situation for the trans community. I will again draw on data from the Trans Mental Health study to highlight the reality behind current stories in the media.

I’ve been driven to write this post by the widespread reporting on the death of Lucy Meadows, a primary school teacher in Lancashire. I should say that at this point, there is no confirmation that it was suicide, but there have been informal reports on social media, and some bloggers have felt confident in saying that it was. The reason that this particular death is receiving widespread coverage, is that Lucy was the target of a vicious article in the Daily Mail just three months ago, covered in detail by Zinnia Jones (no direct link to the DM). Jane Fae wrote about the links between Lucy Meadows’ story and press regulation, which is high on the media agenda right now.

In related news, this week the Press Complaints Commission responded to a selection of the 800 complaints they received about Julie Burchill’s transphobic rant in January. The PCC has ruled that the decision to publish was not in breach of the Editors’ Code of Practice, predominantly because the article did not name an individual.

It is with those details in mind that I want to turn to the data. It is all too easy to read a report like the Trans Mental Health (TMH) study and forget that every data point is a person.

The TMH study was the largest of its kind ever undertaken in Europe, with almost 900 respondents[1]. As the researchers knew anecdotally that suicidal thoughts and experiences are a major issue for the trans community, there was a whole section dedicated to it in the survey. The key results are:

84% of respondents had thought about ending their lives at some point, a huge majority.

Of those people:

  • 63% had thought about attempting suicide in the past year
  • 27% had thought about it in the past week
  • 4% thought about it every day

Of those who had thought about suicide:

  • 48% had made an actual suicide attempt
  • 33% had tried more than once
  • 11% had tried in the past year

Factoring back in the people who responded that they had never considered suicide, the overall figures for the trans community are 35% of people have attempted suicide at least once, and 25% have attempted more than once.

These figures compare with global estimates that approximately 5% of people attempt suicide at least once in their life, and 10-14% of the general population have suicidal thinking throughout their lifetime[2].

Bar graph comparing UK trans population, 84% of whom consider suicide, and 35% who make at least one attempt; with the general global population, of whom up to 14% think about suicide, and 5% make one attempt.

Bar graph comparing UK trans population, 84% of whom consider suicide, and 35% who make at least one attempt; with the general global population, of whom up to 14% think about suicide, and 5% make one attempt.

When asked about how their suicidal ideation and attempts changed after transition, 63% of respondents said that they thought about or attempted suicide more before transition, and 3% thought about it or attempted more after transition. Some respondents, 7%, said that they thought about or attempted suicide more during the process of transition, which has clear implications for healthcare and support.

Participants were asked some questions about whether anyone they knew personally had attempted suicide. 68% of respondents reported knowing someone who had attempted suicide due to being trans or having a trans history, and 31% knew someone who had committed suicide.

The TMH study also asked specifically about the media, and 51% of respondents reported that the way that trans people were represented in the media had a negative effect on their emotional wellbeing. 4% felt it had a positive impact, and 31% reported no impact.

Clearly, suicidal thinking and attempts are dramatically higher for the trans community than for the population as whole. That we live in a society where such an at-risk group can be subjected to personal and generalised vilification in mainstream media should be a source of deep shame for us all. As David Allen Green so eloquently puts it; “the tabloids treat trans people the way they would treat anyone, if they could get away with it”.

To bring us back to the start, remembering that these data refer to individual people, I will end with a selection of quotes from the survey participants:

On suicide:

We need to start helping trans teenagers. This would have helped me and probably prevented me from attempting suicide.

If I had not undergone surgery when I did I would almost certainly have either been a suicide or at very least a long-term depressive and possible inmate in some mental hospital.

On the media:

Tabloid stories about trans people are often exploitative, invasive of privacy, inaccurate, irrelevant or intended to drum up transphobia in their readers, often successfully as revealed in the comments on stories. Reading these sometimes upsets and angers me because it shows how hostile many people are to trans people in current society.’

‘The caricatured and stereotyped portrayal of trans issues is the same as racist and sexist jokes. It gives phobic people a means of expression towards other people who are specifically targeted by these jokes. Where are the transgender social heroes who have raised thousands of pounds for charity?’

‘It makes me angry. It also denies me my civic rights. I would never DARE to stand for election, either to the parish, borough or county council, much less to parliament as I would be sure to be ‘outed’ and made to look stupid by the gutter press’

‘The media consistently misgenders, refers to previous names, makes a trans person’s body theirs, theorises why we do it without talking to us properly, makes assumptions about our genders and motivations. They use language that makes ‘trans’ a third gender, stripping us of our identities. They use language that refers to us as abnormal and disrespects our bodies and our rights’

‘At best it’s patronising, at worst it’s a hate crime’

‘we are made out to be freak shows and I am scared that they may come after me or my friends next’

‘We are seen as having sex swaps and mutilating our genitals or we are sexual deviants, we are never just seen as us, the trans angle is always there for titillation’

‘It is a constant reminder of how much most people despise me for what I am.’

‘My parents read into the news too much and think being trans is wrong, this affects their treatment of me’

‘The ways trans people are portrayed in the media generally fosters negative views of trans people. It makes me feel unsafe because it normalises ridicule and violence towards trans people, portrays our identities as invalid, posits being cis as the ‘natural’, ‘normal’ way to be etc.


[1] The number of respondents for individual questions are lower than for the study as a whole, percentages given are of those that answered a given question. Full details are in the TMH report.
back to text

[2] I could not find figures for the UK but if anyone has some, please let me know!
back to text

Trans “regret”

This has now been posted at www.lgbt.co.uk

I’m putting this here because the LGBT news site that expressed an interest in publishing it has stopped responding, which I’m not massively surprised about really, given the furore of the past few days (BurchMoorGate is my preferred title so far). Many others have written inspirational pieces on the subject (CN Lester, Roz Kaveney, Christine Burns all pop instantly to mind; and CN even mentions the Trans Mental Health study which I speak about below), so I’m not going to attempt to add anything, but just bear in mind I wrote this in the context of #TransDocFail and other, smaller discussions that touched on regret that were happening last week.


A lot has been written in the media about regret amongst people undergoing transition. Most recently, David Batty at the Guardian wrote a piece about London GP Dr Richard Curtis, which opens with the example of “a woman who alleges that she was inappropriately prescribed sex-changing hormones and then wrongly underwent a double mastectomy”. The article is described by Zoe O’Connell as a ‘character assassination’ against Dr Curtis. There was also widespread coverage in late 2012 of Ria Cooper (who had been the subject of a Channel 4 documentary, Ria: Diary of a Teen Transsexual), with headlines such as “Britain’s youngest sex change patient wants to go back to being a boy”. Jane Fae describes the problems with these reports, none of which make the distinction between needing to de-transition due to a lack of support, or ‘changing your mind’ (something implied by the sensationalist headlines).

The general public would be forgiven for thinking that many, if not most, trans people end up wishing they had never started the process of transition.

There often is a certain amount of regret shown by trans people following a period of social (and to a lesser extent, medical) transition, but not for the reasons that the media would have you believe. Not because they ‘changed their mind’ or they ‘weren’t trans enough’, but because transition continues to be made unnecessarily more difficult than it needs to be, by public prejudice and a gatekeeping medical establishment.

The recent Trans Mental Health Study  [1] was the largest study of its kind ever undertaken in Europe, with almost 900 respondents. The study asked specifically about individuals’ feelings of regret following social and/or medical transition. These are the results:

In terms of social changes made during transition (coming out to friends and family, changing name, living full or part time in a gender not assigned at birth), 34% of respondents had minimal regrets and 9% had significant regrets. A small majority, 53% had no regrets.

Specific regrets given included: not having the body they had wanted from birth, not transitioning earlier, losing friends and family, and the impact of transition on others.

In terms of physical changes made during transition (resulting from hormone therapy and surgical interventions), the vast majority, 86%, had no regrets. Of the remainder, 10% had minor regrets and 2% had major regrets.

The specific regrets given include complications relating to surgery (especially loss of sensitivity), and the choice of surgeon (if surgery resulted in complications or required revisions and repairs).

The following impacts on wellbeing were reported by the researchers:

  • Transition was related to improved life satisfaction and body satisfaction.
  • Transition was related to a decrease in mental health service use, reduced depression, and better reported mental health.
  • For those with a history of self-harm, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts, all showed a reduction post-transition.
  • Very few participants regretted the physical changes that they had undergone as part of transition.
  • Most participants experienced improvements in the quality of their sex lives following transition.

It is clear from the actual reported regrets, along with the conclusions that transition is associated with a broad range of positive indicators, that most cases of regret around transition are not related to being a different gender to the one assigned at birth, or undergoing transition, but rather due to poor surgical outcomes, social stigma and huge barriers to medical care. For a startling insight into the difficulties faced by trans people accessing healthcare, see the hashtag #TransDocFail, started by @auntysarah and summarised on Thursday 10th Jan in the Guardian.

With these results, it seems apparent that the media regularly skews coverage and chooses stories based on a sensationalist agenda which tries to suggest that many people regret transition.

I’ll end on a selection of quotes from the study participants when asked about regret:

‘Regrets over loss of relationships and friends are minimal because, in general, I think there is little alternative [to] being trans – there is little room for regretting what has been done, because transition was essential’

‘Sometimes I regret ever being out, sometimes I regret the extent that I’m “stealth”. I walk a bit of a tightrope with it and it’s hard to know which way is best. I regret both at intermittent times.’

‘I have no regrets for transition, it is the best thing I can do under the circumstances. I have regrets that I’m trans and wasn’t just born male but that isn’t something I’m able to change.’

‘I do not regret transitioning, but I do wish that society was more understanding and accepting of trans people. I wish that the physical outcomes were better and that I had not lost so much (relationship, job, physical and mental health, home).’

‘I regret the loss of the privilege I had as someone perceived as cisgendered.’


[1] Disclaimer: I was peripherally involved in the TMH Study as part of the Advisory Board from the start, and contributed to writing up the final report. I am cisgendered (not trans).