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Are TERFs Fascists? - Part 1: TERFs, Fascism and Queerphobia

By J. S. Gupta (Twitter: @JSGupta99)


[Content warning: discussion of radical transphobia and sexual assault]


Live, Laugh, Riot - by @dori.oki

What is a TERF?

A ‘TERF’ is a ‘Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist’. It is a controversial label used to denote proponents of a specific strain of transphobia, one which appropriates feminist aesthetics for the purposes of disparaging and demeaning the trans movement. Many in the Trans Rights movement dispute the use of the word ‘feminist’ as an adequate descriptive term for these people. And while TERF-ism as an ideology isn’t reflective of more contemporary currents of feminism (i.e. fourth-wave feminism), which are centred on concepts of intersectionality, TERFism certainly reflects a very reactionary, very conservative conception of the feminist movement, one drawn from earlier currents. The term ‘TERF’ is also useful for distinguishing TERFism from general transphobia as it has a very specific and unique character that we must analyse. Furthermore, it is a far better term than the one the TERFs themselves prefer to use in describing themselves and their movement – ‘Gender Critical’, which is more of a lie than ‘TERF’ is. Moreover, the term TERF is one which truly upsets and infuriates said TERFs and thus, quite frankly, it should be used for this reason, if no other. This article will therefore be using the term ‘TERF’ to describe this form of transphobia.

TERF-ism is an ideology, one that has seen significant growth in organisation and prominence in recent years. The basis of TERF ideology is simple, it is a form of social ‘gatekeeping’, one that seeks to jealously guard ‘femininity’ and ‘femaleness’ for cisgender women, and deny access to either, by anyone who was not assigned ‘female’ at birth. Their reasoning for this is based in a reactionary fearmongering, accusing trans female and other transfeminine people of having some sort of inherent maleness which would allegedly cause them using a female identity to somehow endanger or else disadvantage cisgender women. In addition, they deny the self-determined identity of trans male and other transmasculine individuals, who themselves were also assigned female at birth. They accuse the trans movement of somehow tricking or bewitching women into becoming men, refusing to acknowledge the autonomy of transmasculine people in their assertion of their own gender identity. In short, TERFism is an ideology of hate targeted at transgender and gender nonconforming people. It is hate that they feel is justified by conspiracy theories they’ve concocted surrounding trans people, medical professionals and any who dare advocate for trans rights.

The roots of TERFism go back decades, at least as far back as the 1970s, where cisgender women were even then working to exclude trans women from female spaces.[1] TERFs have begun to have influence within many of the bourgeois parties among the Western powers. Transphobic politicians have been signal-boosting many of their ideas, pairing them with their own traditionalist justifications for maintaining or furthering the marginalisation of trans people. TERFs have also found allies in mainstream media with dominant news organisations such as the BBC platforming this hate movement and their talking points.[2] Moreover, notable celebrities have sought to regenerate their fledgeling careers by committing themselves to the TERFist cause, further increasing the mainstream presence of the movement and its hate speech. TERFs have been repeatedly called fascistic by left-wing advocates for trans rights. With the term ‘fascist’ too often misused, it is imperative we look at this objectively, attempt to see if TERFism as a movement and as an ideology, truly fits the fascist mould.


What is Fascism?

So, how do we actually define fascism? First and foremost, it is a product of post-industrial historical conditions, an ideology manifesting in the contradictions following the First World War. Fascism is a primarily a reaction to modernity and social reformism supposedly going ‘too far’, as well as a reaction to the rise of left-wing radicalism, to create a sort of inverted radicalism – a ‘radical conservatism’. Simply put, fascism is reaction in its most extreme form. Reaction, in this sense, referring to political and social aversion to positive and ‘progressive’ developments in society, wishing to ‘roll back the wheel of history’ to before these developments took shape. Such developments typically being better rights for workers, women, ethnic minorities and, of course, queer people. Like conservatives, fascists typically worship at the altar of ‘traditional values’ and idealise the past but lack the pragmatism of the more mainstream conservatives, having a far more extreme outlook. They do not simply show disdain for marginalised social groups but open and dogmatic hatred for them. They encourage the application of random acts of violence against them by pushing twisted conspiracy theories.

The social dimension of fascism is also important to note. They are drawn, generally from privileged groups and classes. In particular, they are drawn from those who fear they have lost their privilege or may lose it in the future, especially with the rise of left-wing radicalism and the social justice movements that are part and parcel of the left. Historically, fascist groups have been established by, or else supported by the aristocracy and landed gentry, who feared their increasingly waning power as they entered the 20th Century. They also see a lot of support by the bourgeoise – capitalist industrialists – who fear the international labour movement either reducing their profit margins or worse, collectivising their capital. Fascists have been seen as saviours to these classes due to their more violent policies towards trade unionists and socialists. At present, the fascists also gain a lot of support from people of middle-income and upper middle-income who, during times of economic turmoil, also see their privilege wane as their real income falls. Some may rightly blame the ruling bourgeois class for this reduction in their economic conditions, but many others will blame a scapegoat such as the working class, socialists, ethnic minorities, or some other already stigmatised social group, stating that they are the reason why they’ve lost their privilege. The fascists’ extreme policies regarding these groups are what leads to them gaining the support of the ‘middle class’. Ultimately, fascism is an ideology supported by those seeking to regain or maintain their class privilege.

Fascism is a broad grouping. We use it here heuristically though few fascist groups are honest enough to openly call themselves fascists. Terms such as ‘far-right’, ‘alt-right’, ultra-nationalist’ etc., are euphemisms for the same broad ideological grouping that is fascism. If we are to consider TERFism a form of fascism than it is certainly a specialised form of fascism, a sort of ‘single-issue’ fascism focused on one social group – trans people. We have seen other specialised forms of fascism develop considerably in recent years. For instance, internet-based misogyny-centric fascism with ‘men’s rights activists’, ‘red-pillers’ and so on. In the UK and in much of Europe, fascists have been organising with a particular focus on pushing Islamophobia. TERFism would seem to fit in with these other fascist trends. While the more prominent fascist groups have a wider outlook in their policies, TERFs have one single, ultimate goal - eliminating trans people as a visible social group.


The Social Composition of TERFism

We can draw many clear parallels between TERFism and various forms of fascism that seem to indicate that TERFism is indeed a form of fascism itself, but there is a key distinction that must be examined. The majority of fascisms are dominated by a male membership base. Historically, and at present, there has been some female representation in these movements, even at prominent levels, Leni Riefenstahl and Rotha Lintorn-Orman from fascism’s early days, for example. Today there are figures such as Marine Le Penn, Tomi Lahren, and Giorgia Meloni. All of these women have been very critical of feminism and the feminist movement. This further distinguishes the TERFs from other female fascists as they embrace the terms ‘feminist’ and ‘feminism’ when describing themselves and their movement. Materially speaking, this presents us with a concern, in that women are inherently victims of patriarchy. Women are not an inherently privileged group. They can, however, gain privilege from their race and economic class. Because of the way society is stratified, particularly in the West, class and race, as well as gender, all have an effect on one’s material conditions.

On the social ‘totem-pole’, a bourgeois woman is placed below a bourgeois man because of her gender in a society that values maleness over femaleness. A given bourgeois male will tend to have better access to the means of subsistence (basic human needs), as well as the means of production and the reins of government. However, a bourgeois woman will always have better access to these material conditions over a working-class man. Similarly, a white woman will always have better access to material conditions than a black man, and especially better access than a black woman.

TERFs, typically, appear to be white and of middle-income or ‘upper-middle income’ background. These are women with more inherent privilege in society than most other women. But of course, TERFs are not a monolith. There are working class and non-white women who uphold TERFist ideology. However, most of the major organisations, their most prominent leaders and the women who typically attend TERFist meetings are women of privilege, women of means. What is interesting when we begin to consider this about TERFs, is that both a woman’s whiteness and her economic access to the means of production are directly related to conceptions of femaleness and femininity, their femininity often seen as the default mode of femininity or idealised femaleness. Working class women and non-white women (especially black women) are often demeaned by women of privilege as having more ‘masculine’ qualities. This is a direct product of an enforced social hierarchy, manifested by a social order that organises individuals into categories of exploiter and exploited. What this indicates is that the TERF movement is in large part comprised of women with an inherent material privilege over other women in society.

It is in the interest of these women, due to their material conditions to maintain this hierarchy, to assert their privilege over, and to guard it jealously against, women who are deemed their ‘social lessers’. This is where we get to what TERFism truly is at its core, and where it aligns with fascism as a broader movement – TERFism is a form of specialised, veiled and extreme queerphobia.


TERFism as Queerphobia

Queer women, as a social group, have long been deemed as ‘lesser’ than allosexual/alloromantic, cisgender and heterosexual women (allo-cis-het women). Queer women are all women who exist outside of those narrow categories, including trans women. Queer men, including trans men, are also subject to being deemed as ‘lesser’ to allocishet women. The queer population, of course, also includes all people who are gender non-binary. TERFs typically hold, not only a privileged class background and racial background but all also hold the privilege of being cisgender. These are women who do not question or challenge the gender they were assigned at birth, a process which would ostracise them in cisnormative society, as all trans people know well. They are women who conform to cisgenderism and are thus have better access to the means of subsistence and better material conditions overall. Their designation as cisgender grants them privilege in society. It is therefore in their material interests to work against social justice for trans people as well as to uphold the ideal of cisgenderism, in order to maintain their own privilege.[3]

For this reason of social privilege, to the average allocishet, the presence or mere existence of queer people may make them uncomfortable. Some may be more tolerant of their existence if they ‘know their place’. Queer people seeking equal rights, seeking representation and visibility, seeking acceptance and respect are demonised and vilified, especially by the right. Queer people seeking these things are also the target of fascists who see queer people as some sort of detriment to society, to their ideal of civilisation or, when they’re being honest, to the privilege enjoyed by said fascists. It is here we see how TERFism is a form of fascism, this extreme reaction to the growing visibility and legal protections for trans people and their belief in how this will somehow effect cis women. It is a queerphobia in the literal form – a fear of ‘trans-ness’ and the fear of growing rejection of cisgenderism.

Though of course, there are some elements within the TERF movement that may be considered ‘queer’ in their own right. Some cisgender lesbians (and some cisgender female bisexuals/pansexuals) have found their way into this hate movement, rejecting intersectionality with trans people. The most notable example of this in the UK is the LGB Alliance group which openly excludes trans people from their more gentrified form of queer liberation, one approved by the UK’s Conservative Party.[4] The reasoning for some cis lesbians to align themselves with TERFs is, again, privilege. While lesbians still face homophobia in present society, it is arguable that there have been massive gains in legal rights, protections and visibility, within recent years. There is a notion among some cis WLW and MLM,[5] that trans people are simply ‘too queer’ and prevent the cisgender members of the LGBTQ+ movement from achieving social acceptability. Trans people seemingly having replaced gay people as the target of most right-wing pundits. Therefore, in order to appeal to the allocishetists, these lesbians have abandoned trans people in order to elevate their own social prestige. And again, this is not the case with all cis lesbians, just as not all cis women are TERFs. Some cis lesbians are just ‘more reactionary than others’ and possess an internalised queerphobia, hence their alliance with the allocishet TERFs.


TERFism’s Queerphobic Conspiracy Theories

Most queerphobic propaganda centres around framing queer people as dangerous, or the fear of some sort of forced queer assimilation of allocishets. TERFist propaganda is no exception. The TERF conspiracy theories morph and mutate depending on the TERF in question and their particular brand of rhetoric. Typically, non-binary people are erased from TERFist propaganda, and their focus is on two groups: trans women and trans men. In both cases, the conspiracy theories first deny their self-determined gender identities. In both cases they also push the idea of ‘mental-illness’ in a highly malicious display of gaslighting and ableism. However, the conspiracy theories for both typically differ in framing. Trans women are framed by TERFs as ‘predatory males’, while trans men are framed as ‘female victims’. But what remains the same is the narrative that wider social acceptance of trans people, and those advocating for trans rights are threats to cisgender women.

The most famous conspiracy, one that is unfortunately widely believed by many, is the belief that the existence of trans women is a conspiracy by men to sexually assault cisgender women. The focus of this rhetoric often being the use of a women’s bathroom by a trans woman. Some TERFs may suggest that they don’t hate trans women, they are simply concerned about men pretending to be trans in order to assault women. And this ‘concern’ supposedly justifies all at attacks by TERFs on attempts to make transitioning easier medically or trans women more visible legally. Other TERFs go further, suggesting all trans women should be barred from women’s bathrooms and other women’s spaces, for the comfort of transphobic cisgender women. The logical fallacy of this supposed ploy has been explained by many, but it is worth quickly restating here: men who wish to rape women would not go to so much trouble in order to do so. Arguably it is a product of much wider mistrust of all queer peoples in society, the result of a culture that has typically portrayed them as ‘sexual deviants’. This conspiracy theory surrounding trans women reduces their existence into something inherently sexual. Many TERFs insist that trans women are all just men with a ‘fetish’, some suggesting that they are ‘violating womanhood’ by ‘fetishising’ it, but it is, in truth, the TERFs who are fetishising trans women.

There are off shoots of this conspiracy as well. There are the typical baseless accusations of paedophilia that plague all queer peoples, for instance. Another that has grown in recent years is the accusation that trans women are bullying cisgender lesbians into sleeping with them. The claims of this happening should not be dismissed out of hand, nor should they be used to condemn all trans lesbians. Many trans lesbians have anxiety about approaching cis lesbians and often only date other trans lesbians. This is either not known or not acknowledged by TERFs. Many cis lesbians have condemned their use as props in this hateful rhetoric, but their protests have gone ignored. For transphobes, this conspiracy theory of trans women as predators, as ‘pretenders’, as dangerous victimisers of cisgender women is a useful narrative – one which helps embolden male transphobes, encouraging them to ‘take action’ against trans women through legislative means and often violent means.

The reports of assaults by trans women upon cisgender women are incredibly low, though there are some cases focused on by TERFs to justify their conspiracy theory. For instance, the famous case of a trans woman assaulting a cis woman in a women’s prison in the UK.[6] Obviously this crime is condemnable, and it should not be belittled. Sexual assault in prison is a very serious issue, and it is committed by people of all genders. Sexual assault (SA) knows no gender. TERFs seem to believe that any case of a trans woman committing an act of sexual assault is proof that they all commit such. TERF logic therefore concludes that if trans women are sexual abusers, they are ‘actually men’. While a high percentage of reported cases are by male perpetrators, it does not make it a uniquely male crime. In fact, one prominent TERF, actor Lily Cade (who has gone on many vitriolic rants online about trans women as predators), has herself been accused of sexual assault by many of her colleagues.[7] By TERF logic, we could therefore conclude that all TERFs are predators, and are actually men.

This hypocrisy is worth pointing to as evidence of the TERFs’ insincerity. These are not activists seeking social justice for women, these are reactionaries who take issue with trans women purely due to them being transgender and not cisgender. Such conspiracy theories allow TERFs to obscure their queerphobia through the exploitation of the anti-SA movement. They exploit the genuine hardships many people, trans and cis, have faced in a patriarchal world that largely ignores sexual assault. And much like other reactionary forces, the TERFs only really seem to care about sexual assault when they can use it as a political tool against a group they detest.


[1] [2] Caroline Lowbridge, “The lesbians who feel pressured to have sex and relationships with trans women”, 26 October 2021, BBC News, [3] Of course, not all cis women are transphobes but those who place high value upon their privilege of cisgender-ness certainly are. [4] [5] Women loving women, Men loving men [6] [7]


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