Every so often, a word makes the leap from the online lexicon into the everyday vernacular. It happened to “troll”, it happened to “FOMO”, and now, it’s happened to “TERF”. The acronym stands for trans exclusionary radical feminist and was popularised by Viv Smythe in 2008.
It’s become increasingly common in trans-centric spaces online, but only recently has it burst out of these isolated areas to the internet at large.
Personally, I’ve probably seen the word as often as I have “LOL”, and I think I hate it just as much.
I’ll return to Rowling later, but for now I think she’s dominated the trans conversation quite enough, because this issue is far bigger than her or how any of us feel about her views.
A lot of people who hate the word TERF consider it a slur. I must stress that I am not one of those people. Many who claim it is a slur feel it’s being used to silence them; so silenced they are able to write Guardian columns about the experience.
When trans people and our allies try to counter that TERF is not a slur, they fall into the trap of explaining the letters. Yes, it stands for trans exclusionary radical feminist, and therefore if you are a radical feminist and you exclude trans people from your feminism, well then, you must be a TERF. However, we rarely apply this definition to our own usage. Quite simply, the word is used too frequently while meaning too little.
When we debate “TERF is a slur” by examining the word literally, what we’re trying to do is turn it from “a slur” to “not a slur’. I don’t believe TERF is either: TERF is, in fact, an anti-slur.
We see “anti-slurs” being used all the time, though they’re so common we don’t always notice them. They’re used to soften the labels or descriptors we use for hateful actions.
Dominic Cumming’s adviser Andrew Sabisky was fired earlier this year for ”controversial statements” rather than being a “eugenicist”. Donald Trump makes ”racially charged remarks” rather than being a “racist”. And if you hound trans people online with hateful rhetoric, you’re a “TERF” rather than a “transphobe”.
There are a wide range of transphobes out there; I know, I’ve met them. Some do see the divide between trans and cis as being deeply entrenched in feminism, some are merely hateful wolves wrapped up in feminist sheep’s clothing, while others still abandon any shred of feminism whatsoever to sic their hate on a vulnerable target.
The longer we group them all together, the longer we protect them from the word “transphobe” and propagate a “both sides” argument. But not only that, we also fail to address the mistruths, false equivalence, and erasure of trans men and non-binary people in their rhetoric.
I’m not asking every trans person to correct every lie told about trans people online – god knows that would be exhausting – but we have to understand that calling someone a TERF and moving on does nothing to expose the flaws in their arguments to onlookers with no prior knowledge on trans issues.
JK Rowling herself, ironically, may actually be a TERF. Certainly, her views on transgender people are wrapped up in the definitions of “woman”, and other feminist concerns. But most of the transphobic people I deal with online do not seem to have such concerns, or indeed any concerns. They just don’t like trans people.
Even calling Rowling a TERF shifts the debate into meaningless territory. It then becomes a discussion around whether or not she is, or whether or not TERF is a slur. I don’t care. I don’t know many trans people who care.
So stop calling everyone a TERF. There’s nothing radically feminist about anonymous Twitter trolls with usernames like @Steve81683677 tweeting blind hate. TERFs exist, and they hold seriously problematic views, but they’re a small circle inside a much larger circle in a Venn diagram labeled “transphobes”. TERF isn’t an attack; it’s a protection. Please, call them what they are.
Stacey Henley is a freelance writer.