TERF Battle: A New Book Reignites the War Between Radical Lesbian Feminists and Trans Women


On March 21, Vikki (she requested we use only her first name) proudly tweeted a pair of photos of herself for #BeforeAfterFriday. On the left, dated 2009, was a ruddy-cheeked, button-nosed dude sporting a newsboy cap, black T-shirt, and five o’clock shadow. On the right was present-day Vikki, resplendent in orchid eye shadow, blush, and lip gloss, her celadon eyes peering up from under an asymmetrical bob.

Compliments came pouring in. “I can only hope to achieve something similar,” one follower tweeted back.

The tone changed a few weeks later, when the same photos were posted to the Facebook page of the website Gender Identity Watch, run by radical lesbian feminists vehemently opposed to very concept of “transgender.” Almost immediately, Vikki’s Twitter timeline turned into a stream of haters attacking her appearance and repeatedly referring to her as a man.

Upon seeing the photos on Facebook, Vikki’s girlfriend frantically dialed and redialed her number, but Vikki wasn’t answering. “She actually thought that I’d tried to kill myself,” Vikki says.

Her girlfriend had reason to assume the worst: The suicide rate among transgender people hovers around 41 percent, according to a 2010 study. That’s nearly nine times the national average. The study specifically cites harassment as a major contributing factor.

The next few weeks were rough, to say the least. Vikki found herself unable to perform even the simplest tasks, like applying her makeup before going to work. “I found myself crying at my reflection,” she tells the Voice. “Every time I looked in the mirror, it amplified my dysphoria.” (“Gender dysphoria” is the clinical term for the conflict between a person’s birth gender and the gender with which he or she identifies.)

Harassment of the sort Vikki endured isn’t new or uncommon. For decades, certain radical feminists have viewed trans women as men demanding the spoils of womanhood without enduring the female experience, or worse, as fifth columnists intent on subverting the women’s movement. Even Gloria Steinem wrote in the 1980s that feminists were “right to feel uncomfortable about the need for and uses of transsexualism.”

The Internet and social media have only relocated this long-running war online, even as mainstream feminists have banished TERFs — “Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists,” as trans allies call the opposition, a label the feminists consider a slur — to the outer fringes of the movement. Steinem herself disavowed her older views in an essay published in the Advocate in 2013. “Transgender people,” she wrote, “including those who have transitioned, are living out real, authentic lives. Those lives should be celebrated, not questioned.”

But if trans activists believed their radical-feminist enemies were being steadily beaten back to the darker corners of the Internet, they were dismayed when they heard of a new book by British scholar Sheila Jeffreys, a respected professor from the University of Melbourne, that would dismiss transgenderism as a fad embraced by the seriously mentally ill. Worse still, one of the most prestigious academic publishers in the world, Routledge, had agreed to distribute Jeffreys’s book, Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism.

The prospect had a particularly disturbing resonance for trans people who could recall an earlier academic work that had far-reaching consequences in the real world.

In 1980, feminist Janice Raymond, now professor emerita at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, wrote The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She Male, whose title neatly summed up her central arguments: The medical and psychiatric professions had fallen prey to pressure from transgender activists and to trendy theories about gender identity. Far from giving people the chance to begin life anew, Raymond warned, hormonal therapy and anatomical adjustment were profoundly misogynistic acts that did irreparable damage to deluded patients and to feminism itself.

The book established Raymond as an authority on transgenderism. She was one of several scientists from whom the (now-defunct) National Center for Health Care Technology requested papers that would ultimately guide the federal government’s 1981 decision to deny Medicare coverage for gender-reassignment surgery, a practice that was quickly embraced by private insurers.

When word of Jeffreys’s book leaked a year ago, trans activists wrote to Routledge asking the publisher to drop Gender Hurts, which in turn fed radical feminists’ fears that transgender women were behaving like thought police.

Gender Identity Watch founder Cathy Brennan tells the Voice she found efforts to pressure Routledge not to publish Jeffreys’s work “very frightening,” adding that she’s deeply troubled by “the idea that [Jeffreys], as an academic publishing a book, should have someone looking over her shoulder to make sure she’s using approved language.”

Routledge didn’t back down. When the publishing house released Gender Hurts three months ago, it shot to the top of Amazon’s Transgender Nonfiction list, in spite of its $50 price tag.

In her book, Jeffreys expands on her theory that transgenderism is a recent and highly toxic social phenomenon. In an interview with the Voice, she invoked cautionary tales of adults ruing irreversible childhood surgeries, husbands announcing over dinner that they were switching genders, and women living in fear of being raped every time they share a bathroom with a transgender woman. To Jeffreys, however, this “fad” is most harmful to transgender people themselves, who, she contends, are taking out their “very serious mental problems” on their own bodies.

Jeffreys says she harbors no personal animosity toward transgender people. As a feminist, she says, she simply consigns transgenderism to a list of “harmful” social practices that also includes prostitution, makeup, high-heeled shoes, and tattoos. “To criticize the practice is seen as hating on the people who do it,” she says, doubtless aware that transgender people no more consider their gender identity a “practice” than gay men or lesbians view their sexual identity as a “choice.”

Cristan Williams, editor of the website TransAdvocate, says Jeffreys’s work is particularly pernicious for the way it plays right into the hands of the political far right. Because Jeffreys is a lesbian who considers herself a left-wing radical feminist, Williams says, “It gives the right wing this notion, this appearance of an unbiased source” when people like Sean Hannity, who name-checked Gender Hurts on his daily radio show, cite her work approvingly.

They failed to keep Gender Hurts off bookstore shelves, but trans activists and their allies haven’t relented in their fight against radical feminists. In November, the feminist group Secular Woman initiated a change.org petition calling on the Southern Poverty Law Center to monitor Gender Identity Watch as a hate group. The petition recounted stories about transgender men and women who were outed to their physicians, employers, family members, and school administrators, or doxxed: had their pre-transition photos and names posted online, sometimes alongside those of violent sex

Secular Women president Kim Rippere tells the Voice that the SPLC declined to act because it believed Gender Identity Watch “doesn’t rise to the level of ‘group’ that they use.” (A spokeswoman for the law center says the organization is “looking at the group.”)

The petition put the SPLC in the position of arbitrating between two factions, each adamant they’re being persecuted by the other. Further complicating matters, the law center has dealt with Gender Identity Watch’s founder before as an expert: A 2012 article about the “hard-line fringe” of the Men’s Rights Movement published in the SPLC’s Intelligence Report magazine quoted Cathy Brennan as a prominent source.

An attorney who once campaigned for a Maryland nondiscrimination law that would have included legal protections for sexual orientation and gender identity, Brennan says the campaign against her is “based on this idea that if you don’t toe a specific line” — i.e., accept trans women on their own terms — “you’re a Hitler/Nazi/hater/bigot.”

Though the SPLC has so far declined to take sides, Facebook did. On June 17, Vikki tweeted to her followers that the social network had suspended Gender Identity Watch’s page. (Within hours, a new page, Gender Identity Watch Reloaded, popped up.)

A minor triumph, but also the latest in a string of victories transgender Americans have chalked up. For example, earlier this month, the New York State Department of Health announced it would no longer require transgender residents to provide documentation of surgery or hormonal treatment in order to change their legal gender.

In May, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services made a momentous and potentially far-reaching decision: It overturned its ban on extending Medicare coverage to gender-reassignment surgery on the grounds that the government’s previous determination that the surgery was “experimental” and “controversial” is no longer “reasonable in light of the current state of scientific and clinical evidence.”