Image: Nicky Rowbottom / Wikimedia Commons
A few years ago I had no idea what the term ‘TERF’ meant. It popped up occasionally in my Twitter feed and I finally took my question to Google, where I discovered that it stood for ‘trans exclusionary radical feminist’. It struck me that the term is a bit of a misnomer. If you’re trans exclusionary, then you’re no feminist. As feminism stands for the equality of the genders, excluding transgender people renders feminism pretty meaningless.
Now, apparently, the term ‘TERF’ is a slur. As a Twitter user tried to tell me last week, calling someone a trans exclusionary radical feminist is now akin to hate speech. Even when they are, in fact, trans exclusionary. If it makes them feel any better, I can get on board with losing the ‘radical feminist’ part of the equation. A more accurate term would be ‘TENF’, a trans exclusionary non feminist.
I’ve no doubt I’ll be described as hateful for suggesting such a revision too. It seems to go with the territory when it comes to speaking up in support of trans rights. Which is very much at the heart of the matter. The human rights of trans people have been in the news a lot recently, largely due to a stoush that took place at the London Pride Parade.
The parade, which featured an estimated 30,000 participants, became a cultural warzone when a small group of anti-trans activists staged a protest, lying down in front of marchers and waving banners bearing slogans like “transactivism erases lesbians” and “#GetTheLOut”. After a short negotiation, the parade organisers allowed the anti-trans activists to lead the parade; a move that angered much of the LGBTQ+ community.
The protest was obviously effective. In the time since, arguments have been raging online over trans and lesbian rights. As loath as I am to give those discussions more airtime, the kind of rhetoric advanced by anti-trans activists should not go unchallenged. So what on earth is this argument all about?
In a nutshell, anti-trans lesbians are arguing against the ‘cotton ceiling’, a term coined by trans activist Drew DeVeaux. The ‘cotton ceiling’ generally refers to the difficulty some trans people have in seeking lesbian and gay relationships, and has been broadened to denote the struggle some may face in fitting into lesbian and gay social spaces more generally.
Trans women, the anti-trans activists seem to be asserting, are apparently pressuring and coercing lesbians into having sexual relationships with them. The anti-trans activists usually then go a step further and question or refute the gender identities of trans women and trans people.
To strip it all back, there are two main issues here, consent, and trans rights. The ‘cotton ceiling’ is a hugely polarising term, and one that I personally find problematic. At the base of any discussions around sexual relationships is the essential concept of consent. No one is entitled to have sex with anyone else, regardless of gender. If someone doesn’t want to have sex with you, that’s that. Game over.
People are attracted to each other for all kinds of reasons. Is it transphobic for a lesbian to not want to have sex with a trans woman? As the saying goes, you can’t help who you fall in love with. You can’t make yourself desire someone if you don’t. Sexual attraction doesn’t work like that.
But, that’s no reason to be an arsehole about it. Not being attracted to trans women is no excuse to go around refuting their gender identities and forwarding other damaging anti-trans narratives. If you’re not attracted to someone, the least you can do is be a respectful human being and not be horrible about it.
There are lesbians who are in happy and fulfilling relationships with trans women. There are lesbians who are not physically attracted to penises. There are people who are attracted to humour, kindness, arrogance, larger bodies, smaller bodies, big penises, big breasts, and even feet. Whatever floats your boat is your business, and no one else’s.
But if there’s one thing that is for certain, it’s that there is enough womanhood to go around. It’s not as if there’s only a finite amount of femininity in the world. Acknowledging that trans women are women does not make me (a cisgender woman) any less woman. Nor does it have any impact whatsoever upon my same-sex relationship.
If only we could live and let live. What a truly gay place the world would be.Support Villainesse