How not to be a TERF?


How not to be a TERF?

Originally, the term TERFism was used in relation to cis women’s views, radical feminists who – most often openly – worked towards excluding trans women and questioned the need of taking legislative measures regulating the functioning of transgender persons in the society. Nowadays, the meaning of the term has broadened and describes veiled transphobia of the would-be allies of the said minority. If this issue is new to you, you seriously intend to support transgender, intersex, and non-binary people, or simply don’t want to be taken aback (and break down into tears) when someone calls you a TERF, take a look at our guidelines.

Klaudia Żark

Published: 14.06.2021 3 minreading time

How not to be a terf - trans rights - illustration

Illustration: Jarek Danilenko

Don’t be afraid

Transgender, intersex, and non-binary people don’t usually intend to jeopardise your identity, they don’t want to erase the word “woman”, excluding you from public debate. They want, though, to be included in the conversation, especially if the subject doesn’t concern cis women only. For instance, if we’re talking about reproductive rights, which concern anyone who might get pregnant – meaning: trans men and non-binary people too. If you’re certain that the group you’re referring to is composed entirely of cis women, using the word will be logical and well-based.

Don’t laugh at them

Transphobia is not a joke. It’s not a chap in women’s clothing. Such attitude is abuse and bullying people who are, more than others, susceptible to depression and suicidal ideation, including very young people and children, whose protection is our moral obligation. It so happens that those people have endured years of humiliation, jeering, and even threats – at school, online, and in their own homes. Think hard if you’re really amused by it and think again before you reproach them for their lack of perspective or call them oversensitive when they feel hurt because of your “innocent banter”.

Try to understand

Read the literature on transgender issues, talk to transgender people, listen to interviews with them. Ask yourself a question “why do you feel that inclusive language oversteps your boundaries?”. What experiences or internalised fears might have triggered such a response? You may justify your exclusive attitude with caring for the visibility of women in the society, but do you really think that transgender people, who are a minority, pose any threat here?

Don’t get it? Admit it!

Not knowing how to use gender-neutral expressions or how they function in the language of human rights is nothing hideous (if stemming not from malevolence but simple human limitations). What is hideous, though, is the ignorance and the need to exclude. I believe that many cis women who put together TERFy comments do so unwittingly. A discussion about the rights of transgender people is a difficult one and not everyone has the appropriate tools to participate in it. It’s important to respect the identity of transgender people even when you can’t wrap your head around it. Just as we respect so many other people, although we never had the chance to put ourselves in their shoes. 

Don’t base your reasoning on the presence of particular sex organs or lack thereof

You have no idea how many people you can hurt with a comment based on such a shaky criterion. A person without uterus/ovaries/vagina is not a woman? What about those who had mastectomy, hysterectomy, or with atypical innate physique? What about beastly rituals of maiming people with clitorises and vulvas? Can you refuse them the right to be called women as well?

Use gender-sensitive, inclusive language

Some claim (probably under a wave of radical optimism) that it only takes a nice word and the day becomes brighter. In order for the reality of transgender and non-binary people to get better – to help this minority feel seen and become a part of the debate – we need to use gender-neutral words. If the expression “people with uteruses” is not to your liking, make up something else. One that will be pleasant enough for your ears. “People who can get pregnant”, “people who might need an abortion” – sounds nice, doesn’t it?

Inclusive language is the language of emotional intelligence and empathy. Search for those two before you refuse to call someone your sister in this joint fight for human rights, just because they don’t fit into your worldview. And if you don’t do the work, you do let a transphobic comment slip from your mouth, and you end up being called a TERF as a result... well, at least don’t act as if you’re the one who’s been hurt the most.


Klaudia Żark
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