Transsexual surgery “could be likened to political psychiatry in the Soviet Union. I suggest that transsexualism should best be seen in this light, as directly political, medical abuse of human rights. The mutilation of healthy bodies and the subjection of such bodies to dangerous and life-threatening continuing treatment violates such people’s rights to live with dignity in the body into which they were born.”
This quote was written by an influential member of a group that has targeted transgender people for the last forty years. This group has done more to oppress trans people than any other hate group in existence. They have affected the lives of each and every trans person in America, and are the originators of many of the anti-trans memes we’ve all heard the radical Right use. However, far from being a creation of right-wing fundamentalist extremism, this is our own homegrown hate group: the Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists, or TERFs, a term popularized by non-transgender feminists in 2008.
What’s both interesting and insidious about this group is that they’ve historically enjoyed acceptance within academia, progressive circles, feminism, and the gay and lesbian community. In the same way that other anti-LGBT fundamentalist groups wrap their hate in religion in order to make their views a part of religious discourse, TERFs wrap their anti-trans hate in the language of feminism, womanism, and/or lesbian culture.
The quote at the beginning of this article comes from Sheila Jeffreys, a TERF author, lecturer, and academic. Her quote appeared in a peer-reviewed paper published by the Journal of Lesbian Studies in 1997. The paper is titled “Transgender Activism: A Lesbian Feminist Perspective,” and it is being promoted on the website of a women’s rape shelter, which is where I found it.
TERFs began enjoying real success in forcing their anti-trans rhetoric into feminist discourse in 1973. TERFs were the first to politically weaponize what has become known as “the bathroom meme”—the idea that transwomen pose an inherent risk to women by using the women’s restroom. They also fought to ensure that trans people would be barred from speaking at the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally. (This, after trans people not only inspired the Stonewall Riot, but paid for the post-Stonewall legal fight for LGBT equality.) However, trans icon and Stonewall instigator Sylvia Rivera managed to force herself onto the rally stage to talk about being beaten and raped. She went on to challenge rally attendees to be there in a meaningful way for all LGBT people most at risk for oppression. A TERF then took the stage after Rivera and denounced the presence of trans people.
During that same year, TERF pioneer, lecturer, and writer Bev Von Dohre and her TERF group called the “Gutter Dykes” attempted to have trans people banned from the West Coast Lesbian Feminist Conference. The conference was a cathartic moment for lesbian feminism, and the largest gathering of its type ever. It was also the first time that the national lesbian feminist community encountered the trans issue. What transpired at that conference continues to influence feminist discourse to this day.
A transwoman named Beth Elliott helped organize the conference; she planned on attending and was even scheduled to perform a song. This enraged Von Dohre and her TERF group, and they decided to force Elliott out of the conference.
A 1973 issue of The Lesbian Tide recorded the internal clash between TERFs and feminists:
Feminist: This woman is insisting that Beth Elliott not be permitted to perform because Beth is a transsexual. Beth was on the San Francisco steering committee for the conference, a part of the original group that gave birth to the idea. . . . She’s written some far-out feminist songs. That’s why she’s here. We do not, cannot, relate to her as a man. We have not known her as a man. . . . She is a woman because she chooses to be a woman! What right do you have to define her sexuality?!
TERF: He has a prick! That makes him a man.
Feminist: That’s bullshit! Anatomy is not destiny!
A vote was taken, and TERF icon Robin Morgan pleaded with attendees to vote for banning Elliott by saying, “I charge him [sic] as an opportunist, an infiltrator, and a destroyer—with the mentality of a rapist.”
While the conference attendees voted to allow Beth Elliott to stay, Von Dohre and her TERF group threatened to disrupt the conference if Elliott remained. Elliot left the conference, and lesbian feminist leaders took news of the controversy back to their communities. From that moment on, the transwoman-as-rapist meme became a mainstay of TERF dogma.
Incidentally, Von Dohre still promotes anti-trans bigotry as feminism. Speaking about the high rate of murder of trans people, in 2010 Von Dohre wrote, “They expect we’ll be shocked to see statistics about them being killed, and don’t realize [that] some of us wish they would all be dead.”
In 1979, TERF opinion leader Janice Raymond published The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male. The book, seen as a significant feminist critique of the trans experience, expanded the transwoman-as-rapist meme that Robin Morgan and Von Dohre had promoted in 1973 by stating, “All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves.”
After publishing The Transsexual Empire, Raymond went on to write what became the federal government’s view on trans medical care. The National Center for Healthcare Technology (NCHCT) was a government-funded body that reviewed metadata so that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) would be able to make evidence-based judgments about the efficacy of medical technologies. In short, they advised the government on what was and was not medically efficacious. The NCHCT had Janice Raymond issue their position on the efficacy of trans medical care. The report was made available through the Office of the Associate Director for Medical and Scientific Evaluation, Public Health Service.
Until Raymond’s NCHCT position paper, the federal government supported trans care as medically necessary. This meant that poor trans people could access psychological and medical care because public and private insurers had no official basis upon which to reject coverage for trans care. Raymond asserted that trans medical care was a new and unethical phenomenon, and that legislation should block trans medical care and instead institute a national program of reparative therapy.
It was only after the NCHCT pushed Raymond’s bigotry in 1980 that the government reversed course in 1981 and took up Raymond’s views and rhetoric. Raymond’s bigotry became the government’s stance. This official anti-trans policy soon spread to private insurers, and the American trans population soon found itself without access to medically necessary health care.
During a time when employment discrimination against trans people became legal due to an appeals court ruling that trans people were not covered by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, Raymond helped dismantle the trans community’s ability to access trans health care through public and private insurance. Raymond ushered in the era in which trans people (many if not most of whom were unemployed) had to pay out-of-pocket or go without. In essence, Raymond helped ensure the future of a medical system that was unresponsive to the needs of the trans community at every turn.
There’s a reason why many trans people lay the death and suffering of untold numbers of trans people at the feet of Janice Raymond and the TERF movement. We are left to wonder how many trans people have taken their lives because they were not able to access the essential psychological and medical care they needed. In 2012, the State of California issued a paper reviewing how suicide rates correlate to discrimination in accessing medical and psychological treatment:
According to Dr. Ryan Gorton, “In a cross-sectional study of 141 transgender patients, Kuiper and Cohen-Kittenis found that after medical intervention and treatments, suicide fell from 19 percent to zero percent in transgender men and from 24 percent to 6 percent in transgender women.”
Clements-Nolle, et al, studied the predictors of suicide among over five hundred transgender men and women in a sample from San Francisco, and found a prevalence of suicide attempts of 32 percent. In this study, the strongest predictor associated with the risk of suicide was gender-based discrimination that included “problems getting health or medical services due to their gender identity or presentation.” According to Gorton, “Notably, this gender-based discrimination was a more reliable predictor of suicide than depression, history of alcohol/drug abuse treatment, physical victimization, or sexual assault.
“These studies provide overwhelming evidence that removing discriminatory barriers to treatment results in significantly lower suicide rates.”
In 1993, a transwoman named Filisa Vistima took her own life after writing about how she was unable to access medical care. She wrote that she felt she was a “Frankenstein’s monster.” Vistima had been given the task of entering data from a Lesbian Resource Center (LRC) survey that asked their service population if they felt that the LRC should continue to provide services to trans people. TERFs had taken a hard line against providing services to trans people, and she was the one who had to record each venomous TERF objection prior to her death.
Vistima’s self-image as a “Frankenstein’s monster” eerily resembles the rhetoric from Mary Daly’s 1990 TERF book Gyn/ecology that was popular in lesbian circles at the time. Daly wrote, “Today the Frankenstein phenomenon is omnipresent not only in religious myth, but in its offspring, phallocratic technology. The insane desire for power, the madness of boundary violation, is the mark of necrophiliacs who sense the lack of soul/spirit/life-loving principle with themselves and therefore try to invade and kill off all spirit, substituting conglomerates of corpses. This necrophilic invasion/elimination takes a variety of forms. Transsexualism is an example.”
This instinct for cruelty among members of the TERF movement is as alive today as it was forty years ago. For the 2013 Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day set aside to remember those who were murdered in acts of anti-trans hate, a prominent TERF group tweeted that transwomen were men and criticized the event as a mere “public relations tool.”
In the past few years, TERFs have tried to make their anti-trans movement a bit more personal. TERFs have acted to out trans people to their employers and to intervene in legal name/gender changes and medical care. Moreover, they’ve shown that they’re willing to go after trans kids, too. Recently, Cathy Brennan, an attorney who heads a particularly hateful TERF group, outed a trans youth at school and even went so far as to work with the ex-gay group Pacific Justice Institute (PJI) in targeting a sixteen-year-old trans girl. Brennan’s group acted as PJI’s mouthpiece, joined them in misgendering her, and promoted PJI’s bullying. The girl was pushed to the brink of suicide and was placed on suicide watch.
As more people learn about this hate group thriving in our midst, resistance to the group grows. For two years in a row, annual TERF conferences were canceled by local hosts after the group’s anti-trans agenda was exposed. Feminist icons like Gloria Steinem have begun to push pack on TERF ideology, and even pioneering radical groups like Radical Women, formed in 1967, have recently taken a public anti-TERF stance. In the face of this, TERFs like Sheila Jeffreys are left scratching their heads in bafflement. In a 2006 address at Oxford University, Jeffreys exclaimed, “Now one of the things I find puzzling [is that] those I agree with most are [on] the radical Right.” She was commenting on the way her anti-trans views and those of fundamentalist extremists match.
Trans people have had to contend not only with the anti-trans bigotry of the Right, but with intolerance found on the Left as well. After forty years of allowing this hate group to take refuge in our own progressive movements, it’s past time that we see the TERF movement for what it is: a hate group that has been hiding in plain sight for decades. To learn more about TERFs, please visit theterfs.com, a website dedicated to tracking TERF hatred and intolerance.
Cristan Williams is a trans historian and pioneer in addressing the practical needs of the transgender community. She started numerous trans social-service, housing, and health programs, and founded the Transgender Center as well as the Transgender Archives. She co-chairs the City of Houston HIV Prevention Planning Group, is the jurisdictional representative to the Urban Coalition for HIV/AIDS Prevention Services (UCHAPS), and is the executive director of the Transgender Foundation of America.