When NZ journalist Philip Matthews weighed in last year on the reaction to a NZ Herald piece by columnist, Rachel Stewart, I was pleased because I’ve always engaged with him amicably on Twitter, I respected him as a journalist and I thought he’d bring professionalism and balance to what too often degenerates into a highly charged slanging match. I thought he’d help shed light and turn down the heat and, when he came under fire, I offered to discuss the issues with him. He never took up the offer but he did say in reply that he’d never encountered, and was baffled by, such intolerance, rigidity and hostility.
Fast-forward a year and that’s pretty much how he now describes those who he was then defending. Such a dramatic U-turn clearly warrants a more in-depth explanation than is possible on Twitter, and he expanded on his reasons in a Q and A with the digital editor of Metro magazine, Tess Nichol.
The resulting polemic is headlined : “TERF Wars: adopting - and then abandoning - a "cult-like" movement”. The sensationalist headline doesn't disappoint and in the body of the piece, the following heavily charged words and phrases appear:
dogmatic political ideologues; consume its acolytes; cult-like; destructive and hostile; gender essentialist; visceral and emotional reactions; flimsiest cloak of feminist platitudes draped over disgust and hate; disgust is at the heart of it for a lot of people; portray themselves as marginalised, silenced minority; dogmatic parroting; hound; denounce; obsessiveness; single-mindedness; alarmist, conspiracy theories; extremely cruel TERFy ideas; down the TERF rabbit hole.
The same polemical tone is evident in a footnote:
*Many TERFs now reject this label and prefer to use the term “gender critical feminists”. It has been alleged the term TERF is a slur, and abusive. However the acronym was used for a long time by those who agreed with the political philosophy to self-identify. Although it is often used by critics of the movement, often in highly critical or even aggressive contexts, Metro does not agree it is a slur, and is a more accurate description of the groups’ politics than Gender Critical feminism.”
There is a degree of cant involved in, on the one hand, giving unquestioning support to the right of trans people to gender self-identification (GSI), and on the other hand, haughtily declaring groups of women do not have the right to name themselves.
What is apparent is the writer either doesn't understand or accept that gender critical feminism (GCF) sets out to challenge the very nature of gender as an oppressive ideology, but rather sees the movement as primarily, or even solely, trans exclusionary.
In this, Metro and Matthews are singing from the same song sheet – a tune written by US YouTuber, Natalie Wynn. They don't define GCF and they echo Wynn's assertion that TERFs have decided to call themselves GCF because it has fewer negative connotations. In reality they claim, it''s just a cloak over transphobia - with the implied corollary that all those who are progressive have a moral duty to use the term TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminism) and reject GCF. (1)
For the record - the acronym TERF originated in the US in and was coined to describe one side of a split in US feminism between women who were ok with including trans women in feminist discourse, politics and women-only spaces; and women who were not. There tended to be a high proportion of radical feminists and lesbians in the latter group. The term was disinterred by transactivists to use as a label for anyone who challenges any aspect of the current trans agenda - irrespective of their political or feminist position or beliefs.
The groups and individuals labelled as TERF these days have at their core, both radical and socialist feminists, and there are also growing numbers of women who don't necessarily see themselves as feminist, let alone be prepared to specify which type.
In the crucible of social media, TERF has taken on a highly pejorative character – ie it is used to express contempt and disapproval, and to corral and to brand a group or groups of persons. It has most definitely taken on the character of a slur - in the sense of an insulting or derogatory term that is applied to individuals who are deemed to belong to a targeted group. (Contrary to Wynn's claim – a slur is not confined to race, religion, gender or sexuality.)
A slur is also an allegation or an insinuation that is intended to insult or to harm reputation - something that is definitely intended and which definitely happens.
Clearly TERF is not simply a descriptor; it is pejorative, and it has become a slur. More importantly, it has moved into the realms of agit prop given the frequent hyperbolic claims that TERFs are equivalent to Nazis, white supremacists, holocaust deniers, homophobes etc etc.
The inconvenient fact that many of the women who are corralled and branded as TERFs are lesbians and/or politically left-leaning is disposed of by the highly ideological mechanisms of declaring such women to be ‘biological or vagina essentialist’; or asserting that being a TERF cancels out any claim to being progressive; or by portraying them as the hapless victims of a cult, or as damaged in some way.
I know quite a few perfectly lucid, principled and progressive people via social media who are labelled as TERFs. I have a lot of progressive, highly intelligent and principled friends who would be so labelled if they felt able to comment on the subject publicly. I've been labelled a TERF and blocked, muted and unfollowed on Twitter by a number of people (most of whom I suspect have overly reactive knees and a tendency to fling themselves heedlessly onto passing bandwagons) but I'm neither TE nor RF. I own to being a socialist feminist and to be sceptical of aspects of the current trans orthodoxy - so turn that into a snappy acronym if you can.
Philip Matthews knows how it feels to be on the receiving end of a social media backlash - including implied and actual threats to livelihood. I remember the tone and scale of the reaction to his very mild questioning of the hostile response to Rachel Stewart’s column, and how that ratcheted up to manic level when he tweeted the content of a direct message he’d received. As I recall, a member of NZ Twitter’s self-mandated moral majority threatened to complain to his employer and – perhaps wisely - he backed off.
Latterly however he has publicly and fulsomely confessed his wrongdoing and he blames his briefly aberrant behaviour on the mind-altering influence of the cult of the TERF. In seeking absolution he’s performed the required public acts of self-flagellation, recited his mea culpas and has been rewarded by being welcomed back into the fold of the congregation of the righteous. (Apologies for the religious overtones but it seems strangely fitting.)
People who attacked him at the time – some of them unreasonably and disproportionately so - are saying ‘sorry mate’ and giving him cyber hugs, but on the other side of the fence, the women he's dumped on are angry and not just because of the poacher turned gamekeeper schtick.
On the basis of his very brief foray into public support for GCF, Matthews claims special insight into the dynamics of the whole global movement - including the psycho-social motivation of “a lot of people” in it. He not only declares ‘TERFs’ to be “cult-like” but says lots of the people drawn to it are motivated by “disgust and hate” towards trans women. (2) He hastens to add that of course he was not so motivated.
Whilst it is possible that some of those he and Metro would call TERFs do feel “disgust” towards trans people, most feel no such thing and the numbers of ordinary, decent, intelligent and principled people who are questioning aspects of the current transgender orthodoxy ought to give journalists reason to engage the frontal cortex - not indulge in their own amygdala-driven, aversive responses.
Anyone who thinks that the liberal feminists who are in opposition to GCF are representative of most women’s views on this, really needs to think again and wake up to the fact that a wide range of women are being drawn to GCF arguments and many of them are angry. It’s stating the obvious that anger is never conducive to calm, rational and productive debate, which is why the Metro article and others like it are irresponsible.
People who are reflexively anti-TERF probably don't care but some of these women are also bewildered or frightened by the vitriol they encounter or which they know they would encounter if they ever went public with their concerns. Those feelings are intensified when they're accused of being both the initiators of, and the worst culprits in, the all too common hurling of vitriolic threats and abuse.
Consider what’s actually being said here by a magazine editor who writes under the still powerful banner of professional journalism:
“One bugbear of mine is the way anyone who disagrees with the (TERF) ideology, especially if they do so in a way that is rude or uses swear words, is incorrectly labelled as engaging in “abuse”. My emphasis.
The logic behind this is, it’s not abuse because the people saying it were provoked. Seriously, with "sisters" like this, who needs misogynists?
Is saying to a young woman “choke on my girl dick" incorrectly labelled as abuse? How about offering to shit in the urn containing the ashes of the stillbirth you wished on a woman who questioned you? Or a man calling a woman and fellow party member, “a deplorable TERF cunt”? Or a group of male proto-anarchists singing that TERFs “deserve to be kerb-stomped”? Or a high profile academic saying “TERFs should die in a grease fire.”
I wish I could say those sort of comments are rare or unusually extreme but if they were I wouldn’t bother highlighting them.
I’ve been reading and thinking about this issue for a long time and with renewed interest over the past five years or so (3) and it wasn’t GCFs who ratcheted up the inflammatory rhetoric on social media, but, having absorbed the punches for a long time, some women are now openly expressing anger, possibly feeling emboldened, in part by their steadily growing numbers and – dangerously, in my opinion – by apparent support from the political Right which is being typically cynical and opportunistic. (4)
In the ramping up of the on-line rhetoric on both sides, it is true that some people are unkind and even cruel towards, and about trans women. Although a lot of that may be in reaction, I won't employ the Metro argument and try to claim it's justified because people have been provoked. There’s no excuse for unkindness or cruelty and it’s a fact that social media encourages and enables that to flourish. It's also a fact that there are people who cynically whip up the polarising rhetoric for dodgy political or personal motives.
Another reason that social media acts as a bellows and intensifies the heat of debate is that it is a global platform on which people can lose sight of the specific nature of the situation in their own country. Social media allows fears to be both magnified and globalised and pretty soon people look at each other and see only threats.
The situation in the US (which informs Wynn's analysis) is very different from the UK and NZ, which have more in common with each other in terms of how the law works generally and the role of central government in establishing equality law. Both are also more trans-friendly countries than the US where trans people have very good reason to be fearful.
The highly charged and increasingly polarised debates in the UK and here in NZ were provoked by demands for gender self-identification by statutory declaration (GSI/SD). (5) The questioning of this has led to threats towards, attacks on, and denial of platforms to, dissenting women. People who support these attacks need to ask themselves - when relatively powerful women are subjected to waves of abuse, have their livelihoods threatened and are denied platforms to speak - whether that be on social media, in mainstream media or in a university - what message does that send to women who are relatively powerless?
A sentence in the Metro piece, in reference to TERFs, took my breath away :
“It took me a while to learn that just because someone is a minority, they are not necessarily the underdog.”
Aside from the fact that this may equally apply to some trans people, how could a white, middle class, professional, heterosexual man not know that being in a minority doesn’t necessarily make someone the underdog?
Matthews tweeted recently about the “strange bedfellows” In the GC movement - referring to Sean Plunket’s support for Speak Up For Women. He's right, there are indeed some “strange bedfellows” but these are strange times and a right-leaning radio host providing a platform for SUFW is surely no more strange than a neo-liberal Conservative government in the UK deciding to lead on GSI/SD for transgender people.
And, for every right wing misogynist who is pretending to support GCF – there are self-styled progressive men who are using it as an excuse to take their misogyny out of the closet to give it an airing.
Metro and Matthews aren't alone in sidestepping the fact that, in most of the Anglophone world (5) - and running counter to the claims of the most extreme personal and collective vulnerability and marginalization - the trans community actually enjoys a considerable breadth of governmental, institutional, professional, NGO, corporate, voluntary sector, academic and media support.
That breadth of support exists despite the fact that, as an ideology, transgenderism challenges one of humanity's most deeply rooted sets of beliefs, which flow from the biological reality of sexual dimorphism and which cut across the divides of sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, class, political allegiances, religion etc.
The rightwing press in the UK (Matthews cites The Spectator and the Daily Mail) do indeed publish some articles that are critical of transgenderism, but it's nothing remotely like it’s capable of doing when it really wants to demonise a movement, or a person. Ask Jeremy Corbyn.
And then ask, why would a neo-liberal Conservative government - committed to outrageously harsh policies that have destroyed working class collectives and communities – have been fully supportive of GSI/SD, even though that risked alienating at least some of its traditional ultra-conservative support base?
Take off the ideological blinkers and the answer's obvious - it was a classic 'dead cat'. The UK Labour Party’s response (driven by its internal divisions and by a large influx of people who are politically ultra-left and/or socially transgressive) was to pick it up and run with it in advance of the promised legislative change and diverting precious time and energy and expending political capital - only to have the Tories subsequently back off from delivering.
But, while there's no denying either the breadth of the support that transgenderism currently enjoys, or the speed with which it has progressed, both as an ideology and in terms of positive responses to lobbyists - the important question is how deep and stable that support is.
That question becomes very important when we pose it in the context of a world at risk of fracturing along an ancient fault line that is a far more powerful driver of behaviour than this one small facet of modern Western identity politics.
That ancient fault-line is the divide between the socially cautious and conservative, and the socially radical and transgressive. The former will tend to cleave to the known and be more comfortable submitting to authority; the latter will tend to challenge established norms and authority.
A healthy society acts as a fulcrum that keeps tendencies to the extremes of each in balance. If the seesaw of public opinion were to tip all the way in one direction in the current era (either because the fulcrum point shifts or because of a sheer weight of opinion) it's most likely to tip towards the ultra conservative because of the existence of far more powerful drivers of extreme social anxiety and unease than how members of a numerically tiny minority are able to legally define and socially describe themselves.
In what remains a powerfully phallocratic world (for all the formal equality gained by some women) the ever-widening bandwidth of what it means to be transgender and a rise in heedless assertions about, and questioning of, what it means to be female and a woman, could prove to be a tipping point that causes the social and political balance to shift heavily and/or rapidly towards the ultra-conservative and authoritarian.
If there is such a shift, the outcome for swathes of people could be truly awful. That is why this debate is so important and why anyone who acts in ways that cut out light and turn up the heat deserves to be given a metaphorical clip round the ear.
Metro and Matthews - consider yourselves clipped.
(1) If GCFs are expected to use preferred pronouns as a gesture of good faith, why can’t transactivists and allies use the term GCF instead of insisting on using TERF? After all it might help smooth the pathway to a more productive exchange of views instead of endlessly chasing each other in a circle shouting slogans.
(2) Matthews draws heavily on You Tuber Natalie Wynn's video on GCF. In this video Wynn is far more trenchant in her rhetoric and specific about it being her own views than usual, ie she does not hide behind one of her many personae as she often does on other subjects, ie. present herself as "an abstract figure" thus "easing the burden of being directly held accountable for every opinion (she) express(es)". Her ‘alter-ego’ in this video is a black clad, Medusa-like/witch hybrid character who presents a number of the easily critiqued GCF talking points that litter Reddit - where Wynn seems to harvest her TERFisms. This specificity is possibly because she'd been the subject of her own woke-Twitter auto da fé when she agreed to be interviewed by Jesse Singal and do an interview with rightwing trans woman vlogger, Blaire White, and attacking TERFs is an easy way to regain woke brownie points. Or maybe she just really hates TERFs. In any event, if she wants us all to unite to fight for women’s rights, maybe she should stop using the term ‘fish’ – it’s extremely offensive.
(3) This is not something that has happened since a small number of feminist academics in the UK became active on Twitter, although they and a few brave celebrities have given it a big boost.
(4) Some of the broad Left are busy playing at being revolutionaries and lobbing Molotov cock-tales at the regiment of monstrous women, but a lot of left wingers are staying schtum and hoping it will all blow over and not impact too heavily at the polls. Neither is a very sensible or politically mature strategy.
(5) In NZ, GSI/ SD was included in draft legislation at select committee stage in response to a petition – a move that precluded proper public debate over the implications for wider equality legislation and especially sex based exceptions.
(6) In Trumpist USA the far right media is far more overt about using transgender issues as a rallying call for the right and as a stick to beat liberals with.