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The TERF Pipeline: How Feminists Are Falling Into a Transphobic Rabbithole

Transphobia is rampant, and is not just confined to the right of the political spectrum.

Protesters at Trans Pride in London. Credit: Jessica Girvan/ Shutterstock.

The idea for this article came to me the way many of life’s greatest revelations occur: mindless scrolling on TikTok. I watch a surface-level, generally non-controversial video on feminism. Then I’d get another, this time slightly more focused on sex-based oppression. Another one on the joys of “natural womanhood,” and then one complaining about the advent of gender-neutral terminology. The last few elicited eyebrow raises of varying severity, and then I realized (to my immense horror) that I had stumbled across TERF TikTok.

The acronym TERF stands for ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminist.’ Radical feminism is a school of feminist thought whereby abolishing patriarchy is only possible through radically re-ordering society. This contradicts the more accepted liberal feminism, where women joining power structures (like having more women CEOs) is a priority. Some radical feminists (not all, which is important to note) assert that biological sex is the key oppressing factor within society. Although sex-based oppression is important to consider, the aforementioned approach is myopic, blinkered to societal expectations of gender, and the immense societal hatred of trans women.

TERFs on Social Media

Endemic transphobia is not exclusive to the right of the political spectrum. A significant number of self-proclaimed ‘feminists’ subscribe to trans-exclusionary schools of thought. Their numbers are only increasing with the rise of social media since creators can reach larger audiences with relative ease. Seeing commenters casually agree with blatantly transphobic talking points (like trans women “invading” women’s spaces) desensitizes users to transphobia, accepting it as necessary for feminism. Finding yourself in a transphobic echo chamber doesn’t take long, and it is frighteningly easy to do so.

TikTok user @gothamshitty is talking about her experiences with the TERF pipeline on social media.

The TikTok algorithm seems to push transphobic content for users who engage with feminist content. It is often rather difficult to realize how deep you are into TERF TikTok since the terminology in these circles is incomprehensible to most. Dog whistles include the term ‘wombyn’ or ‘womyn’ to indicate a biologically female woman, although contextually, it is often used to other and exclude trans women. Excluding trans women from feminism directly is too contradictory since it reduces women down to their biology. This is why TERFs use more subtle, plausibly deniable language, allowing them to continue spreading transphobic rhetoric.

Feminism and Transphobia

Using feminism as a front for spreading transphobia is not a new phenomenon. Claims that trans women are “appropriating womanhood” were common in second-wave feminism. Womanhood was defined in a more biological way, which was easily weaponized against trans and gender non-conforming people to demonize them. Prominent second-wave feminist Janice Raymond even wrote a questionably titled book called The Trans-Sexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male that stereotyped trans women as violent biological men who wish to rape “real” (biologically female) women.

British magazine The Economist urged contributors to “avoid all slurs, including TERF,” because the word silenced women’s voices. Classifying the word ‘TERF’ as a slur does not precisely accord with reality. While it can be pejorative, it does not uphold systemic oppression or violence. If anything, it indicates cis privilege and is a valuable indicator (or warning) of ideology.

J.K. Rowling is a prominent figure in debates surrounding transphobia. Even though she is not a radical feminist, she is guilty of spouting transphobic rhetoric on Twitter. Rowling wrongly claims that trans people are trying to push the agenda that sex isn’t “real,” which is unsubstantiated. This shows that transphobia is not constricted to radical feminism. It is prominent in most subsections and those who do not identify as a feminist.

Protecting Trans Women

Trans women are arguably one of society’s most vulnerable and hated groups. Increased visibility has not necessarily changed prevailing cultural attitudes. In fact, they have faced hatred with increased frequency in recent years. Transphobia, like many forms of bigotry, transcends political alignment. Left-wing people are far from innocent, whether through erasure or outright hostility under the guise of protecting women.

The intersection of transphobia and misogyny is known as transmisogyny. The imaginary fear that TERFs have of trans women “invading” spaces meant for women clearly indicates transmisogynistic thinking since trans women are also women deserving of safe spaces.

Therefore, recognizing TERF rhetoric under this pretense is incredibly important since it often slips unnoticed. Picking up on dog whistles and avoiding this content ensures that these ideas do not spread, thus protecting trans people from further damage.

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English literature student! When I'm not online, I like reading, sewing, and making daisy chains.

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