'Pro-lesbian' or 'trans-exclusionary'? Old animosities boil into public view

A transgender-exclusionary radical feminist, or TERF, is a contentious term used to describe feminists whose views about gender are seen as anti-trans.
Image: Revelers march in London's Pride Parade on July 7, 2018.
Revelers march in London's Pride Parade on July 7, 2018.Wiktor Szymanowicz / Barcroft Media via Getty Images file
By Julie Compton

The letters LGBTQ often appear together, but the people the letters represent are not always as united. And now, decades-old animosity between transgender activists and “radical” lesbian feminists — who have conflicting views on gender — has reached a boiling point on social media and in real life.

A point of contention is “lesbian erasure” — an idea that lesbians are systemically “erased” and ignored within male-dominated LGBTQ activism and mainstream media, and a belief that transgender activism, which aims to protect the rights of a small and highly marginalized group, allegedly harms women, and lesbians in particular.

“We do not think supporting trans women erases our lesbian identities; rather we are enriched by trans friends and lovers, parents, children, colleagues and siblings.”

Over the past two months, 12 editors and publishers from eight of the most prominent lesbian publications in the U.S., Canada, Australia and the U.K. have signed on to a joint statement titled “Not in our name” condemning the idea of “lesbian erasure,” viewed by many LGBTQ activists as anti-transgender.

DIVA, Curve, Autostraddle, LOTL, Tagg, Lez Spread The Word, DapperQ and GO Magazine believe that trans women are women and that trans people belong in our community,” the statement reads. “We do not think supporting trans women erases our lesbian identities; rather we are enriched by trans friends and lovers, parents, children, colleagues and siblings.”

“We strongly condemn writers and editors who seek to foster division and hate within the LGBTQI community with trans misogynistic content, and who believe ‘lesbian’ is an identity for them alone to define,” the statement continues. “We also strongly condemn the current narrative peddled by some feminists, painting trans people as bullies and aggressors — one which reinforces transphobia and which must be challenged so that feminism can move forward.”

‘LESBIAN RIGHTS ARE UNDER ATTACK’

In the U.K., the debate around so-called lesbian erasure spilled onto the streets in July, when a small group of lesbian feminists called “Get the L Out” disrupted London’s annual pride parade. The protesters wielded signs that read “Transactivism Erases Lesbians,” and lay down in the street to obstruct the parade.

According to an explanation on the group’s website, it was protesting, among other things: the “increasingly anti-lesbian and misogynistic LGBT movement”; the movement’s alleged encouragement of lesbians to “transition” into straight men; and ongoing efforts to reform the Gender Recognition Act of 2004 (GRA), which aims to make it easier for trans people to update their legal identification in the U.K.

“We believe that lesbian rights are under attack by the trans movement and we encourage lesbians everywhere to leave the LGBT and form their own independent movement, as well as to be vocal and take action against the proposed changes to the GRA,” the group stated.

The protest received broad condemnation from LGBTQ media outlets and sparked an apology from parade organizers, which called the behavior of the protesters "shocking and disgusting, and we condemn it completely.”

"The protest group showed a level of bigotry, ignorance and hate that is unacceptable," the apology said.

A FRAUGHT HISTORY

The view that transgender activism is harmful to women, especially lesbians, has been held by radical feminists since at least the 1970s, according to Lillian Faderman, a lesbian historian and the author of “The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle.” She said radical feminism does not reflect the beliefs of most lesbians.

What tends to set so-called radical feminists apart from other feminists is the belief that a woman’s identity is rooted in biology, a view criticized by some LGBTQ activists as “essentialist,” Faderman explained. She added that this group of feminists has a long history of hostility toward trans people.

During the first National Lesbian Conference at UCLA in 1973, Faderman recalled, transgender folk singer Beth Elliot, who organizers invited to perform at the event, was booed off stage.

“I just remember these women sitting very close to me screaming, ‘He’s a goddamn man! He’s a goddamn man!’ and just really and absolutely erupted into this very unpleasant situation,” Faderman said.

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The best known feud involving “radical feminists” and transgender women revolved around the Michigan Women’s Music Festival, known more endearingly as “MichFest.” The annual women-only event, which was popular among lesbians, officially ended a 40-year run in 2015. The organization in 1991 asked a transgender woman to leave the festival, and for the next two decades the event was plagued by criticism claiming it was anti-transgender.

MichFest organizers never issued an official policy against transgender women attending the festival, according to Faderman, but it openly maintained it was a “women-born womyn” space, meaning it centered around cisgender women (those who, unlike transgender women, were assigned female at birth).

The festival’s stance outraged many transgender activists and long-time attendees who were trans allies, according to Faderman. The festival became emblematic of the exclusion many trans women experienced in women- and lesbian-only spaces.

“It was a mixed message, and certainly not enough to satisfy the trans community or those who supported the trans community,” Faderman said.

‘TERF’: A CONTROVERSIAL LABEL

In recent years, radical feminists have been derided as “transgender-exclusionary radical feminists,” or “TERFs,” by many LGBTQ activists and writers for having what many see as illiberal and anti-transgender views.

Faderman said the term TERF is “relatively new” and has become synonymous with radical feminism in recent years.

“It’s certainly meant to insult radical feminists and to raise suspicion about all of them,” Faderman added.

The label, which grew popular on Twitter, has seeped into mainstream media and political discourse. In New Zealand, a member of Parliament was criticized in November for reportedly stating, “I don’t want any f----ing TERFs at the pride parade” in Auckland — a possible reference to the Get the L Out protests at London’s pride event.

The San Francisco Public Library came under fire in April for featuring an art display by the feminist and genderqueer art club the Degenderettes, in which a tank top splattered in fake blood read “I PUNCH TERFS!” The library later removed the shirt and issued an apology on Twitter.

In December, shortly after the “Not in our name” open letter was first circulating on LGBTQ websites, the gay news site The Advocate published an article referring to lesbian pop culture site AfterEllen as a “TERF” site.

In recent months, AfterEllen, which is owned by Evolve Media, has faced criticism over what many LGBTQ advocates see as transphobic content published on its site and social media accounts.

In an early December op-ed, an AfterEllen columnist claimed that transgender activism is “a viciously toxic form of men’s sexual rights activism that has managed to rebrand and reframe itself as a civil rights movement.” In a more recent op-ed, another columnist claims that lesbian culture is “under siege.”

AfterEllen also faced fierce backlash on Twitter in early December after it tweeted a controversial video from lesbian Youtuber Arielle Scarcella aimed at transgender lesbians titled, “Dear Trans Women, Stop Pushing ‘Girl D--k’ on Lesbians.”

Those who brandish the TERF label argue it simply and accurately describes feminists and lesbians who exclude trans women from their spaces, while radical feminists see it as a pejorative meant to discredit their views.

On her Canadian blog, The Feminist Current, self-proclaimed radical feminist Meghan Murphy claims the acronym TERF is “hate speech” that incites “violence against women.”

To the ire of many trans advocates and allies, Murphy, who is heterosexual, regularly critiques transgender activism and alleges that gender identity is an “ideology” that hurts women’s rights. This month, LGBTQ activists protested a talk that Murphy gave at the Vancouver Public Library titled “Gender Identity and Women’s Rights.”

In November, Twitter began suspending and eventually banned Murphy’s personal account for tweets that misgendered trans people.

After multiple suspensions, Murphy reportedly tweeted: “I’m not allowed to say that men aren’t women or ask questions about the notion of transgenderism at all anymore? That a multi billion dollar company is censoring BASIC FACTS and silencing people who ask questions about this dogma is INSANE.”

AfterEllen lamented Murphy’s ouster in a Nov. 27 tweet.

WHO SPEAKS FOR LESBIANS?

The editors who signed the “Not in our name” statement wanted to condemn what they claim is transphobia within certain corners of lesbian and mainstream media, according to Carrie Lyell, editor of DIVA magazine, a U.K.-based lesbian pop culture site that published the statement.

“It’s exhausting, I think, for trans people and for the LGBT community to have this weight again and again, to be told again and again, that trans people don’t belong in our community, that lesbians don’t want trans people in their community, which we don’t think is true,” Lyell told NBC News.

While the “Not in our name” statement does not explicitly criticize any specific publications, Lyell confirmed that AfterEllen was one of the publications the message critiqued as “foster[ing] division and hate within the LGBTQI community with trans misogynistic content, and who believe ‘lesbian’ is an identify for them alone to define.”

AfterEllen Editor-in-Chief Memoree Joelle declined requests by NBC News to be interviewed. However, Joelle emailed a 1,000-word statement that referred to AfterEllen as “the only mainstream lesbian publication still remaining, that focuses on issues as they specifically pertain to and affect lesbians.”

Joelle then alleged that several unspecified authors of the “Not in our name” statement were “disgruntled ex-employees of AfterEllen” involved in an attempt to sabotage the website.

“The statement is a very clear manipulation to throw women under the bus,” Joelle stated. “There's been an ongoing campaign of homophobia directed exclusively at lesbians, and when our writers try to cover these issues, as they specifically pertain to and affect lesbians, we're shouted down by non-lesbians with slurs and anti-lesbian sentiment.”

“AfterEllen is with everyone, but first and foremost we have a moral obligation to provide a voice to the most silenced group within the acronym, and right now that is Lesbians,” Joelle continued. “Lesbians have been attacked and witch-hunted throughout history. It’s nothing new. It’s just that this time, the threatening calls are coming from inside the house.”

Autostraddle Editor-in-Chief Riese Bernard, who added her name to the “Not in our name” statement, offered a more nuanced view of the situation.

“They can publish whatever they want,” Bernard said of AfterEllen, “but I don’t think it’s fair for them to say they speak for all lesbians.”

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