You might imagine that rampant transphobia is primarily animated by a conservative movement, as seen in the U.S. in various states’ bathroom bills, or the entire Trump administration. The truth is, while the British conservative right would almost certainly be more than happy to whip up a frenzy of transphobia, they simply haven’t needed to, because some sections of the left over here are doing their hate-peddling for them. The most vocal source of this hatred has emerged, sadly, from within circles of radical feminists. British feminism has an increasingly notorious TERF problem.
It's really vexing that mainstream British feminism is so riddled with TERFs. Why the UK specifically? It raises interesting questions about the history of British feminism, to be sure.— Katherine Cross (@Quinnae_Moon) October 4, 2018
I need an explanation as to why most Twitter terfs are from the uk.— Black Sailor Moon (@AshantiMutinta) October 26, 2018
why are so many British feminists terfs who hate sex workers like chill the fuck out Tuppence it’s 2018— Brandy Jensen (@BrandyLJensen) April 8, 2018
What is a TERF, exactly? Quite simply: exactly what the term stands for, which is trans-exclusionary radical feminist (or, more simply still, anyone who calls themselves a feminist but does not care to include trans people in their political considerations). Viv Smythe, the cis woman who is credited with popularizing the term through her posts on in the early 2000s radical feminist blogosphere has explained that she intended it as a neutral descriptor meant to distinguish radical feminists who believe feminism pertains only to biological women from radical feminists in general: “Grammatically, the “trans-exclusionary” placed before “radical feminist in the TERF acronym means that it modifies “radical feminist,” describing a subset. Just the way that the term Italian-American doesn’t mean that all Americans are ethnically Italian, it’s just describing a subset of Americans.” The application of the term has shifted somewhat over time to encompass most people espousing trans-exclusionary politics that follow a particular “TERF logic,” regardless of their involvement with radical feminism.
That logic boils down to a very basic refusal to accept that trans people are the gender that they say they are rather than the one that they were assigned at birth. For the self-styled “feminists” who follow it, this manifests in a refusal to accept that trans women are women, and thus that their presence in “women’s spaces” such as changing rooms, rape crisis shelters, and gender segregated hospital wards, is not a threat.
It’s alarming the extent to which, in the U.K., transphobia has taken hold among people who understand themselves to be left-wing — with virulent streaks present in the trade union movement, the center left media, and in the Labour party. Trans people looking to take up positions within their local Labour party groups now have to run the gauntlet of small but vocal factions intent on their removal, a case in point being Lily Madigan, a talented young organizer who happens to be a trans woman and has become a pet target of obsessive TERFs within the party.
The main focus of transphobes’ ire in recent months has been the possibility of self-identification-based gender recognition being enshrined in law. Last week saw the closure of the British Government’s consultation on this possibility, a set of proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act. These changes would have given more weight to self-identification in the process of attaining a document legally recognising the holder’s gender (known as a Gender Recognition Certificate) in place of the current system, which is a complicated process of “proving” your gender to a panel according to a long list of criteria including a mental health diagnosis for dysphoria, proof of having “lived in the acquired gender throughout the period of two years ending with the date on which the application is made” and, if the applicant is married, I kid you not, spousal consent for their gender to be recognized in the eyes of the law.
In response to a very reasonable suggestion that we remove some intentional obstacles to gender recognition, many in the British press lost their fucking minds. Some sample headlines from The Times, the paper of record in the United Kingdom, include: “Trans extremists put equality at risk,” “Trans movement hijacked by bullies and trolls,” “Women are right to have concerns over trans reforms,” and “Trans rapists are a danger in women’s jails.”
Over the weekend, some notable American contributors to the Guardian felt compelled to publish an op-ed disavowing their British colleagues’ stance toward transgender rights.
In response to a very reasonable suggestion that we remove some intentional obstacles to gender recognition, many in the British press lost their fucking minds.
I’m not particularly interested in engaging with such nonsense, but it is worth asking how transphobic narratives, focused on depicting trans women in particular as a threat, have gained disproportionate traction in the U.K.’s establishment media in the last decade. Especially among women who should be allies.
The answer lies in part to the coalescence of a certain set of ideas in a very specific circle of voices in the early 21st century — voices that later went on to hold high profile positions in much of the U.K.’s print and broadcast media.
I’m referring here to the U.K. Skeptics movement of the early 2000s. Despite the fact that it was basically a loose network of people who were far too impressed with themselves for not believing in astrology and homeopathy, they have an outsized legacy. The movement consisted largely of groups meeting in pubs and organising talks promoting a specific brand of scientific skepticism and concerned primarily with the “debunking” of alternative medicine and pseudoscience. So far, so niche, but there is compelling evidence that suggests that both the ideological basis and some of the specific proponents of U.K. skepticism in the noughties are implicated in the spread of transphobic thinking into the mainstream media in this country.
While claiming to be the country’s foremost critical thinkers, the group was riddled with anti-humanities bias and a fetish for a certain kind of “science” that it held to reveal a set of immutable principles upon which the world was built with almost no regard whatsoever for interpretative analysis based on social or historical factors. Part of this mode of thinking was an especially reductivist biologism: the idea that there are immutable realities to be found in our DNA, and if we just paid enough attention to Science and stopped trying to split hairs and discover meaning over in the superfluous disciplines of the humanities, then everything would be much simpler. It’s precisely this kind of biological essentialism — which skirts dangerously close to eugenics — that leads people to think they can “debunk” a person’s claim to their gender identity, or that it should be subjected to rigorous testing by someone in a lab coat before we can believe the subject is who they say they are.
In 2013, the group Soho Skeptics convened a discussion in which two trans people talked about their experience of gender identity with two “gender critical” feminists. The event itself seemed relatively tame and civil, but zoom out and you could see it garnered lots of praise from virulently transphobic hate groups and individuals, .
Tracey King, a skeptic activist who credits herself with establishing American-style organized skepticism in the U.K., has pointed out that the movement collapsed in the last decade. She attributes this to some good reasons (turns out it was full of sexists, which the rise of social justice concerns helped bring to light.) But these voices did not go away; many of the figures who made up the movement are now prominent voices at one level or another. Helen Lewis, for example, is the deputy editor of the center-left political magazine the New Statesman, and has promoted a barrage of anti-trans articles. Julie Bindel at the Guardian and elsewhere has a well-documented history of transphobia.
Then there’s Graham Linehan, a formerly beloved high-profile comedy writer who has recently been given a warning by police for directly harassing trans women online. Imagine if Larry David or Jerry Seinfeld suddenly started a social media hate campaign against a particular group of people that took up most of their time and you had to accept that was just part of your reality now. It feels a bit like that.
The other path through which many British women have taken up a particularly transphobic ideology is, somewhat incongruently, the parenting website Mumsnet. The idea that a forum on which women talk about diaper rash would produce a wave of TERFs sounds a bit off, but in the U.K. this has reached the status of conventional wisdom.
Mumsnet was founded in 2000 as a forum for parents — particularly mums, yes — to pool advice and conduct discussions about subjects including but not limited to parenting. The website quickly grew in popularity and influence; in past general elections it was even common for prime ministerial candidates to take to Mumsnet and be grilled (a bit like a Reddit AMA) on questions ranging from childcare policy platforms to their favorite biscuits.
Before long, though, certain members of the platform developed an obsession: that trans women aren’t actually women, and instead violent men intent on gaining access to women’s bathrooms, prisons, and domestic violence shelters to harm them, and the idea that gender self-identification is ripe for abuse by cis men who claim to be trans.
As you might imagine, the whole conversation takes on a Helen Lovejoy-style “think of the children!” tenor, which is very effective for radicalization since it stokes one’s own fears and helps to spread feelings of panic. There is also the sad fact that on any platform where groups of women convene to discuss their lives and experiences, they will have stories of sexual violence in common. So it’s particularly odious to see transphobes prey upon those experiences of sexual violence to stoke hatred towards trans women, who are themselves disproportionately vulnerable to violence.
Despite having committed to cracking down on transphobia, Mumsnet in general has become a hotbed of transphobic rhetoric, and it’s easy to see how women using the website for information about cafes with the best changing facilities in their town could get sucked into the deeply cynical discussions that are being conducted there by people who claim to be worried only for their safety. Unlike the ideas of the U.K. skeptics movement, which I think explicitly helped to incubate trans exclusive politics, Mumsnet is to British transphobia more like what 4Chan is to American fascism. The tendencies were already there, but a messageboard to amplify them and recruit people to the cause never hurts.
Perhaps there’s something inherent in the U.S. tradition of liberal individualism that has safeguarded against the kind of transphobic radicalization that has infected sectors of British society. Certainly the Trump administration has shown itself to have no investment whatsoever in extending the practical and legal applications of those individual freedoms to trans people, but in the population more broadly — particularly among leftists — it seems that American leftists are more likely to trust that everyone knows themselves best and have a right to live and express themselves as they please. In Britain, your business is almost always everyone else’s business, especially when it comes to politics. Somehow this has permeated British consciousness to the point where people feel not just comfortable but actively compelled to ask unbelievably intrusive questions about others’ gender identity and even their genitals, in a misguided pursuit of some kind of greater good.
Here in the U.K. it’s time for us to get our noses out of each other’s knickers and discover some solidarity with our trans siblings, to offer them the basic respect and recognition they so obviously deserve. It’s vanishingly rare that I think any country should take advice from the shitshow that is the U.S., but with regard to feminism, at least American leftists don’t tend to Lean In to bigotry quite as much.
Update: this article has been changed to reflect that Graham Linehan was warned by the police, rather than cautioned.