TERFS and turf wars: how transphobes and transfolk became strange bedfellows

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Pre-transition, I didn’t know any actual trans people. So in the months prior to coming out, I spent hours each day combing the digital archives of FTM Subreddit, Trans YouTube, and other obscure discussion forums existing on the margins of the internet. An obsessive planner with a propensity for tunnel vision, I was simply trying to anticipate and prepare for every possible outcome or obstacle I might face, as well as every question or qualm that friends, family, bosses, coworkers, or society at large might raise when I announced that I was transitioning. I knew I’d encounter my share of invasive questions and unsolicited opinions, identity policing and gatekeeping. I did not expect some of the gatekeepers to be other trans people.

There is a segment of the trans community that supports and participates in the gatekeeping of other trans people. These individuals, known as transmedicalists, believe that a person must experience gender dysphoria (discomfort with their sex assigned at birth) in order to be trans. Surprisingly enough, it is these trans folks, not conservatives, who coined the terms “transtrender” – a derogatory term for someone who identifies as trans for attention, or because it’s trendy.

Transmedicalists tend to be binary trans people (trans folks who identify as male or female) who have themselves medically transitioned. Transmedicalism says: “I have fought so hard, sacrificed so much, to feel comfortable in my skin. How can you say you are trans if you feel comfortable in your skin already, so comfortable that you feel no need to medically transition?” 

This position might seem reasonable to you if you are a cis person whose knowledge of trans people comes from the media. It might also seem reasonable to you if you’re a trans person who has always equated their own transness with dysphoria. But before you decide that you agree with the transmedicalists, consider that they sound a bit like a TERF. 

“TERF” stands for “Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist.” According to TERFs, gender is a myth made up by people with penises (i.e. “men”) to oppress and control people with vaginas (i.e. “women”). TERFs reject gender realism, the idea that women have some features in common (other than sex organs) that make them women, and that men have some features in common (other than sex organs) that make them men. Because trans people claim that gender is something other than sex, TERFs believe we perpetuate gender realism: the mechanism by which women (or people with vaginas) are oppressed.

Because TERFs reject the existence of trans people, they also reject the designation “cis.” There are no trans and cis women, trans and cis men. There are simply women (people with vaginas) and men (people with penises) and anyone who claims otherwise is a sexist tool (or has been brainwashed by sexist tools). Trans women are just men pretending to be women. Trans men are just women pretending to be men.

But trans people do not perpetuate gender realism. If anything, trans people understand better than anyone that gender identity is extremely personal and complex, so much so that two people who share the same gender identity might have literally nothing in common. Contrary to the TERFs opinion, trans people shatter patriarchal assumptions about sex and gender. We are part of the solution. They are part of the problem. For the purposes of this essay I’m going to assume that the reader gets this, that you are all trans-affirming and therefore anti-TERF.

There are some strong parallels in TERF and transmedicalist thought. This should be surprising, considering TERFs are (always) transphobes, and transmedicalists are typically trans people. The first parallel is that TERFS and transmedicalists both deny the existence of whole groups of people, simply because they don’t identify with their experience. In the case of TERFs, this group is trans people; in the case of transmedicalists, this group is trans people who don’t experience dysphoria or feel compelled to transition. And I mean, come on. You don’t have to share my experience in order for it to be valid, and I don’t have to understand your identity in order to respect it. But chances are we could identify with each other if we tried a little harder. I believe this is called empathy, something we can cultivate by being open minded and using our imaginations.

The other parallel, one which should be a massive red flag for any trans person, is the shared fixation on genitals. For TERFS this looks like a myopic distrust of the penis: anyone who has one or anyone who wishes they did. For transmedicalists it looks like a fixation on physical dysphoria: discomfort with one’s natal genitalia and other sex characteristics. I’m not here to say that you are wrong if you define your gender through your relationship to your parts. I’m saying it’s weird to insist that everyone else should do this.

Admittedly, as a binary trans person whose crippling dysphoria is what pushed me to undergo the long and difficult and costly process that is medical transition, there have been moments where I sympathized with the transmedicalist way of thinking. I’m not proud of it. I know it’s hurtful to other trans people. I have addressed my bias in therapy and continue to unpack it whenever it comes up. And I hope that other trans people do the same.

The impulse to bully, to police, or to gatekeep, often develops when one’s own identity or sense of belonging has been threatened. Trans people are told over and over again that we are not who we say we are. We are excluded from our families and other groups and institutions simply for being trans. Some of us spend years jumping through hoops to access hormone therapy and gender confirmation surgery, to finally be seen as the people we are. It makes sense that we would be protective of our turf. It doesn’t make sense that we would exclude or reject other trans people. But just like bullied kids sometimes grow up to be cops, and poor kids sometimes grow up to be a money-hungry executives, trans people sometimes grow up to be transmedicalists. 

Trauma is an explanation, not an excuse. Being able to account for my bias, to trace it back to some origin, be that socialization or trauma, is useful in that it helps me understand it and call it what it is: a bias—an incorrect and harmful belief I formed unconsciously, and which I now have to consciously dismantle. The TERF’s bias might stem from sexual trauma or systemic sexism, or from bad programming. These experiences are not her fault. But they are not trans peoples’ fault either. And her trauma is not an excuse to do harm to trans people. The same goes for my own bias, which is likewise rooted in trauma, systemic transphobia, and bad programming. These things aren’t my fault, but they also aren’t an excuse to gatekeep other trans people.

“But aren’t there actual ‘transtrenders’ out there? People who claim a trans identity for attention, just to feel different or special? And isn’t that offensive to trans people?” I mean, sure. Those people probably exist. But so do creepy cis men who sneak into women’s spaces to assault women. These creeps have nothing to do with trans women, and when TERFs say they do, they commit a logical fallacy, not to mention a violence. I implore you, reader. Don’t be like a TERF. Don’t be a transmedicalist.

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