The Unholy Alliance of Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists and the Right Wing

In DepthIn Depth
The Unholy Alliance of Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists and the Right Wing

In April, the House Judiciary Committee held its first hearing on the latest iteration of the Equality Act, federal legislation that would enshrine sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes under federal civil rights law. Support for the Equality Act, first introduced in its current form in 2015 by Representative David Cicilline, has grown to encompass high profile Democrats like Hillary Clinton, who said in 2016 that passing the Equality Act would be her “highest priority” if elected, as well as corporate behemoths like Apple, Google, and Nike. With the fight to legalize gay marriage won, groups like the Human Rights Campaign have thrown weight behind the passage of the Act.

Included on the Judiciary Committee’s speakers list was Julia Beck, a 26-year-old lesbian, self-described radical feminist, and a member of the group Women’s Liberation Front, or WoLF. But Beck was not there to testify in support of the Equality Act. Invited by Republican members of the committee, she was there to decry the protections that it would provide trans women. “If the act passes in its current form as HR5, then every right that women have fought for will cease to exist,” Beck asserted.

Beck is the latest trans-exclusionary radical feminist, or TERF, to become the darling of right-wing media and conservative politicians who, in recent years, have cloaked their transphobia by embracing the talking points of radical feminists like Beck. These seemingly odd bedfellows united publicly during the Equality Act hearing, where Republicans like Doug Collins and Louie Gohmert voiced their opposition to the Act in the name of women’s rights. The Equality Act, Gohmert said, represented “a war on women that should not be allowed.” Collins, an opponent of gay marriage and abortion rights, spoke approvingly of WoLF, before charging that the bill’s protections of trans people “would demolish the hard-won rights of women, putting them once again at the mercy of any biological man who identifies at any moment as a woman.”

TERF ideology at its core is simple and bigoted: trans women are not women, and their demand for inclusion, and even their very existence, is a danger to women. Beck and others like her are not a new phenomenon—while the term TERF dates to 2008, their ideological underpinnings go at least as far back as the 1960s, to the advent of the women’s liberation movement and in particular to a strain of political lesbianism that staunchly advocated for separatism.

Recently, Beck has become one of the most prominent and recognizable figures in the movement. At the end of 2018, she was kicked off of the Baltimore mayor’s LGBTQ Commission over her belief that trans women are not women, making her, in her words, the “most hated lesbian in Baltimore.” Shortly after, she appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show to discuss her ouster from the commission and to reiterate her claim that trans women threaten the safety of what she terms “biological females.”

“When we get down to it, women and girls all share a biological reality,” she told a sympathetic Carlson. “We are all female. But if any man, if any male person can call himself a woman or legally identify as female, then predatory men will do so in order to gain access to women’s single-sex spaces, and this puts every woman and girl at risk.”

The April hearing for the Equality Act was the second time in as many months Beck has testified before Congress—in March, Collins invited her to speak at a hearing on the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), where she had again repeated her belief that including trans women under its protections would, in fact, harm women. “VAWA was created for women and girls. Not for those who feel like or identify as female,” Beck stated.

Beck’s ideology has found a natural home in WoLF. Founded in 2014, the organization, in its own words, fights for “the total liberation of women” and “to end male violence, regain reproductive sovereignty, and ultimately dismantle the gender-caste system.” But for all of the talk of women’s rights, and despite the current assault on abortion rights led by Republicans (to name just one example) that would seem a more natural target of their ire, the bulk of WoLF’s activism has been obsessively limited to only one issue: fighting the expansion of trans rights, in the name of preventing the spread of what the group derides as the postmodern concept of “gender identity.” In their opposition, they have aligned with conservative, largely Christian rightwing activists and elected officials, who have their separate, reactionary reasons for wanting to maintain the notion that there is a strict dividing line between man and woman and who have, similarly, reframed the debate about trans rights as one about “safety for women and girls.”

In January, the Heritage Foundation’s notoriously homophobic and transphobic Ryan T. Anderson relied on members of WoLF to help him discredit the Equality Act, inviting Beck and WoLF board members Kara Dansky and Jennifer Chavez to participate in a panel titled “The Inequality of the Equality Act: Concerns from the Left.” (WoLF, it should be noted, has almost no connections to what most would describe as leftist movements, yet it is repeatedly described as a “representative of the left.”) “Everything is about the T now, entirely eclipsing the L, G, and B. The T is diametrically opposed to the first three letters of the acronym, and especially to the L,” Beck said. She added: “The completely illogical statement that trans women are women is recited like a Big Brother mantra in every leftist space,” but for Beck, “female sex is the only qualifier of womanhood.” (By Beck’s own essentialist logic, then, trans men are women.)

I don’t understand how you can hate so much that you go out of your way to sell your soul to politicians and extremist organizations who have fought women’s rights and women’s welfare every step of the way

Dansky, the former legal counsel for the Americans Civil Liberties Union, raised a question. “Who would be against equality?” she asked. But the Equality Act, she warned darkly, “would utterly obliterate female-only spaces throughout society.”

Before the Judiciary Committee, Beck, her face a stony mask, a small group of her supporters dressed in red behind her, echoed Danksy, rattling off a list of alarmist scenarios that she believed would be ushered in by the passage of the Equality Act:

Male rapists will go to women’s prisons and will likely assault female inmates as has already happened in the UK. Female survivors of rape will be unable to contest male presence in women’s shelters. Men will dominate women’s sports. Girls who would have taken first place will be denied scholastic opportunity. Women who use male pronouns to talk about men may be arrested, fined, and banned from social media platforms. Girls will stay home from school when they have their periods to avoid harassment by boys in mixed sex toilets. Girls and women will no longer have the right to ask for female medical staff or intimate care providers, including elderly or disabled women who are at serious risk of sexual abuse.

It was all so much outsized fearmongering, based on little more than extremely isolated incidents that have been twisted to paint trans people with a broad brush, if on anything concrete at all. Sitting next to me at the hearing was Mara Keisling, the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality and a longtime trans advocate. Little fazes Keisling anymore, including the rhetoric of people like Beck. At one point during Beck’s testimony, Keisling leaned over to me and whispered, “I feel really sorry for her.”

I caught up with Keisling after the hearing. “I don’t understand how you can hate so much that you go out of your way to sell your soul to politicians and extremist organizations who have fought women’s rights and women’s welfare every step of the way,” she said of Beck and groups like WoLF. “It’s really astounding and sad and pathetic.”

But if it is all of those things—it’s also, at a time when trans rights are under attack by religious conservatives in the Trump administration, increasingly dangerous. As the trans writer, activist, and scientist Julia Serano wrote recently, “We are now living through the biggest anti-trans backlash since the 1970s.” She added, “It’s not just Republicans or evangelicals—it’s coming from numerous fronts.”

In a sign of how their thinking mirrors one another, it can be remarkably difficult to distinguish between the talking points of the Christian right and the language of trans-exclusionary radical feminists. There is little daylight between this statement from Jim Daly, the president of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, writing in 2008:

So, if you believe that your “orientation” is male, but you happen to be a female, this law would permit you, as a woman, to use the men’s locker room, bathroom, showers, or other private places traditionally reserved for men. Likewise, if you, as a man, desire to explore your feminine side, no problem. The law, if passed, would permit you access to women’s facilities.
Talk about opening the door to sexual predators.

And this one by UK-born academic and leading TERF activist Sheila Jeffreys, from her 2014 book Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism:

Men who transgender do not change sex, and have a lifetime’s experience of being members of the male sex caste. As a result, the behaviour of men who transgender is more likely to resemble that of other male persons rather than that of women, and men’s behaviour in women’s toilets can be very abusive.

Jeffreys’s book has been praised by members of the Christian right wing like Ruth Institute founder Jennifer Roback Morse, who wrote approvingly of Gender Hurts in 2016, “I would not have expected to agree with a radical lesbian feminist.” As Cole Parke of Political Research Associates has put it, “Front and center in the Christian Right’s anti-trans offensive is the notion that increased rights, protections, and access for trans people will equate to increased violence, abuse, sexual assault, and rape (specifically for women and children).” Swap out “Christian Right” for “trans-exclusionary radical feminist,” and it remains an accurate statement.

WoLF and its members are just some of the radical feminist groups and individuals that, in recent years, have ramped up their anti-trans rhetoric and activism, both here in the United States and abroad. (The United Kingdom in particular, as Edie Miller explained in the Outline, “has an increasingly notorious TERF problem.”) While their numbers are small, TERF activists have played an outsized role in driving the conversation around limiting trans rights.

While their numbers are small, TERF activists have played an outsized role in driving the conversation around limiting trans rights

Unlike most trans-exclusionary radical feminists in the United States, who have tended to largely focus their anti-trans activism on online attacks on trans women, WoLF has turned to the legal arena—and the organized Christian right wing—to push their goals. In August of 2016, WoLF sued the Obama administration over its guidance that trans students have the right to use the bathroom and facilities of their choice. Shortly after, they filed an amicus brief in opposition to trans student Gavin Grimm, and soon after joined with the Family Policy Alliance (FPA), the lobbying arm of Focus on the Family, in their campaign against trans bathroom access, work that they have continued to the present. Their partnership is a financial one as well—according to reporting by LGBTQ Nation, WoLF has received a $15,000 grant from the Alliance Defending Freedom, a group co-founded by Dobson, to fund their work. In a further sign of their close relationship, Dansky released a series of videos with the FPA at the beginning of 2017. “Come on. How wrong does something have to be for a Christian, pro-family organization and a radical feminist organization to oppose it together?” FPA’s Autumn Leva said in one of the videos.

WoLF has actively cultivated relationships with some of the main players of the conservative Christian ecosystem. At the beginning of 2016, Joseph Backholm, the executive director of the Family Policy Institute of Washington (FPIW), wrote on his group’s blog that the “transgender phenomenon” is a “war on womanhood.” That summer, WoLF reached out to the organization, where they connected with FPIW’s communications director, the anti-abortion activist Zachary Freeman; a member of WoLF has since written for the group’s blog, and Freeman came on board as a fundraising consultant.

Some have speculated that WoLF is merely a front for rightwing groups, an assertion the group denies. “We are not, and should not be seen as, the property of any male-led movement,” the group wrote in April 2017. Arguing that “if a lesbian wants to get published these days saying that the left is allowing the rights of same-sex attracted people to be destroyed, she now has to do it on the pages of The Federalist,” WoLF has framed their partnership with the right as one of necessity. WoLF member Jocelyn Macdonald told me after the Equality Act hearing, “The fact that we have this common ground, it’s temporal, it’s single issue, and it’s not based on the fundamental analysis having any similarities.”

It’s clear why religious conservatives have entered into a pragmatic alliance with groups like WoLF—recognizing that they have lost the cultural and political battle against gay marriage, they have shifted to fight the expansion of trans rights, and see allying with TERFs as a strategic partnership. (The enemy of my enemy, as the saying goes.) As Sarah Posner wrote last year, religious conservatives turned towards anti-trans bathroom bills as the new frontier of anti-LGBTQ activism:

The shift was a sign of a new strategy, post-Obergefell, of finding ways to wedge apart the growing consensus for LGBTQ rights. Just like the Christian right’s long march against abortion rights after Roe v. Wade, it will be a multi-front war – in the courts, in statehouses, in public debate – persisting even while the ultimate prize, a Supreme Court reversal, is potentially decades away. And like the long fight against Roe, this one would start not with legal arguments or even theological ones, but with a pure gut reaction: fear and disgust.

In 2013, the National Organization for Marriage announced it was mounting a new campaign, one targeting trans students’ bathroom access. The next year, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution affirming that attacking trans rights would be a central part of its work moving forward. Around the same time, religious conservatives drew inspiration from the successful effort of conservative Christian pastors in Houston to repeal a broad LGBTQ anti-discrimination ordinance that the city had enacted in 2014, by appealing to anti-trans bathroom panic. When in November 2015, voters overwhelmingly chose to repeal the ordinance, it provided a template for religious conservatives around the country, like those in North Carolina who passed HB2 in March 2016, to mobilize their demoralized base around the cry to protect their women and girls (similar to how Phyllis Schlafly drummed up and capitalized on fears of the so-called “potty issue” to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s).

“While the radical agenda of the homosexual and transgender lobby has rocked the nation in recent 
years,” the FPA wrote in May 2016, “the ‘pushback’ is gaining real steam.”

And central to that pushback was the co-optation of TERF ideology, whose adherents have for years mobilized against the inclusion of trans women in anti-discrimination laws.

In June 2015, the Family Research Council (FRC) issued a policy paper, “Understanding and Responding to the Transgender Movement,” that, in the words of a writer at Slate, “embrace[d] a far more surprising referent, the language of the feminist and queer activists they’ve spent decades fighting, even as they back away from their own conceptual and intellectual vocabularies.” The authors of the position paper even noted their debt to radical feminists, quoting extensively from Janice Raymond’s much-criticized The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, published in 1979, and a book that one writer asserted “did more to justify and perpetuate [anti-trans bias] than perhaps any other book ever written.”

During a panel at the 2017 Values Voter Summit, the annual gathering of the FRC, Meg Kilgannon, a woman who led the fight against the adoption of transgender-inclusive policies by her local school board, made that connection explicit. Kilgannon is the executive director of Concerned Parents and Educators of Fairfax County as well as a member of Hands Across the Aisle, a coalition founded earlier that year that claims to count “radical feminists, lesbians, Christians and conservatives” in its membership, all of whom are opposed to “gender identity legislation” and what they deem the “transgender agenda.” (Several members of WoLF, in yet another example of their comfort in partnering with the right, are also members of Hands Across the Aisle.)

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Kilgannon gave this advice to the Christian activists gathered at the summit (emphasis my own):

Explain that gender identity rights only come at the expense of others: women, sexual assault survivors, female athletes forced to compete against men and boys, ethnic minorities who culturally value modesty, economically challenged children who face many barriers to educational success and don’t need another level of chaos in their lives, children with anxiety disorders and the list goes on and on and on.

Kilgannon referenced her work with Hands Across the Aisle, noting that within the group, “The feminists in our group make eloquent arguments that gender identity is the ultimate misogyny and is the erasure of women. Lesbians in the group are concerned that trans-ing masculine girls is a kind of lesbian eugenics. And guess what? All the women in this group agree that gender identity is bad, pornography is a scourge, prostitution should never be called sex work or legalized. Who knew we agreed on so much?”

She was not the only one who, in the words of the SPLC, attempted “to depict the pushback against nondiscriminatory measures that include transgender people as a feminist struggle.” Cathy Ruse, a fellow at the FRC, described how “feminists are at odds with the transgender movement,” citing a 2016 anthology that’s a Who’s Who of anti-trans feminists (the book’s forward was written by Germaine Greer). “What is the impact on girls who are bombarded with gender transition messages?” Ruse then asked. “In their young minds, do they hear that being female isn’t good enough?”

WoLF and Hands Across the Aisle have worked together to protest a trans-inclusive federal rule on homeless shelters, and in 2017, the founders of both groups spoke at a Heritage Foundation panel, again led by Anderson, on the supposed dangers of laws against gender discrimination. “I really believe that if we lose this fight as women, we’ve lost everything,” said WoLF founder and midwife Mary Lou Singleton. Miriam Ben-Shalom of Hands Across the Aisle, a lesbian who was discharged from the military because of her sexuality and afterward protested the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, bluntly stated that she wants the T in LGBT “to go away.”

“The real issue here is male violence,” Ben-Shalom proclaimed. “If trans women were really women, they would understand that the issue is male violence and they would sit down with us and civilly work together with us to find an acceptable solution to this problem. But all I hear is gimme, gimme, gimme, you do, you do, you do, okay. They want, they want, they want, and to me that’s patriarchal. That’s just males who think they’re entitled, demanding stuff.”

If it is surprising to hear radical feminists parrot a version of feminism that excludes a group of women that face alarmingly high levels of discrimination and violence, it’s not a new mindset. Rather, it represents the logical outgrowth and continuation of certain ideological tendencies within the radical feminist movement of the 1960s and ’70s, what the historian Alice Echols has called “cultural feminism”—the belief in the need to maintain separate, “women-only” spaces, which were built on the “idea that feminism involves the preservation and celebration of femaleness, rather than the transformation of gender.” Or, in the words of the feminist theorist Sophie Lewis, a “wounded attachment to the suffering-based femaleness it purports to celebrate.”

One widely recounted incident from the early 1970s neatly sums up some of the tensions between radical feminists who refused to accept trans women in the movement and those who argued about the moral necessity of including all women. In 1973, the influential radical feminist Robin Morgan was scheduled as the keynote speaker at the West Coast Lesbian Conference in Los Angeles. That year, the trans lesbian musician Beth Elliott served on the conference’s organizing committee and was slated to perform. Elliott had already experienced what historian Susan Stryker described in her book Transgender History as “an early instance” of “an emerging discourse in feminism that held all male-to-female transsexuals to be, by definition, violators of women, because they represented an ‘unwanted penetration’ into women’s space” when a former college friend and fellow lesbian accused Elliott of sexually harassing her. To add to the humiliation, in 1972, Elliott had been kicked out of the lesbian group Daughters of Bilitis “on the grounds that she wasn’t ‘really’ a woman.” (In a reminder that these views were by no means widely shared, Stryker notes that other members resigned in protest.)

In Los Angeles, the Gutter Dykes, a group of lesbian separatists, protested Elliott’s presence at the conference, and Morgan decided to address the “transgender question” in her keynote speech. Morgan, who would go on to create several leading women’s institutions, including co-founding the Women’s Media Center with Gloria Steinem and Jane Fonda, published the speech that she gave in her memoir Going Too Far: The Personal Chronicle of a Feminist; in the introduction to her remarks, she derided Elliott as a “male transvestite” and a “smug male in granny glasses and an earth-mother gown.”

In her speech, Morgan attacked Elliott and the idea that trans women were women:

[A]re we, out of the compassion in which we have been positively forced to drown as women, are we yet again going to defend the male supremacist, yes obscenity of male tranvestitism? How many of us will try to explain away—or permit into our organizations, even—men who deliberately reemphasize gender roles, and who parody female oppression and suffering as “Camp”?
I will not call a male “she;” thirty-two years of suffering in this androcentric society, and of surviving, have earned me the title “woman;” one walk down the street by a male tranvestite, five minutes of his being hassled (which he may enjoy), and then he dares, he dares to think he understands our pain? No, in our mothers’ names and in our own, we must not call him sister. We know what’s at work when whites wear blackface; the same thing is at work when men wear drag.

Describing Elliott as “the same man who four years ago tried to pressure a San Francisco lesbian into letting him rape her” and “the same man who single-handedly divided and almost destroyed the San Francisco Daughters of Bilitis chapter,” Morgan continued, repeatedly misgendering her: “I charge him as an opportunist, an infiltrator, and a destroyer—with the mentality of a rapist.”

A vote then occurred on whether to allow Elliott to remain; according to Stryker, two-thirds wished her to stay, “but the antitranssexual faction refused to accept the popular results and promised to disrupt the conference if their demands were not met.” Elliott performed and then left. (In her memoir, Elliott would later derisively describe Morgan as a “queen bee feminist hustler.”)

The idea that trans women did not belong in “women-only” spaces, and in particular in lesbian spaces, spread widely after the conference. In 1979, Raymond, an ex-nun and lesbian radical feminist, published The Transsexual Empire, in which she argued that trans women represented the “avant garde of the patriarchy invading women’s spaces” and that “the problem of transsexualism would best be served by morally mandating it out of existence.” Reproducing Morgan’s earlier argument, Raymond likened being transgender with rape: “All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves.” Raymond promoted limiting access to medical treatments for transgender people, writing, “I believe that the elimination of transsexualism is not best achieved by legislation prohibiting transsexual treatment and surgery but rather by legislation that limits it—and by other legislation that lessens the support given to sex-role stereotyping, which generated the problem to begin with.” (Stryker notes that Raymond also called for “public education campaigns in which ex-transsexuals would speak of their dissatisfactions with changing sex”—a precursor to so many of the detransitioning stories published by mainstream media outlets in the 21st century.) Raymond would go on shortly after the publication of her book to author an influential paper for the Reagan administration that argued “the elimination of transsexualism is not best achieved by legislation prohibiting transsexual treatment and surgery, but rather by legislation that limits it and by other legislation that lessens the support given to sex-role stereotyping.” Her paper helped, in the words of one writer, “guide the federal government’s 1981 decision to deny Medicare coverage for gender-reassignment surgery, a practice that was quickly embraced by private insurers.”

Beginning in the 1990s, as activism led by trans people gained momentum and as gender studies and queer theory, rooted in a critique of biological essentialism and an expansive notion of gender, burgeoned in academia and beyond, critical attention began to be turned to TERFs, whose brand of feminism began to be increasingly seen as retrograde. Trans activists began vocally protesting “women-only” spaces, like the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, that explicitly excluded trans women, and many called for events and conferences sponsored by TERFs to be canceled. These battles moved online with the advent of the internet and social media, where today, there is an entire ecosystem of TERF bloggers and trolls that attack trans women and their allies.

While TERF ideology today is at times posited as a fringe position and one that is “anathema to the left,” trans-exclusionary radical feminists continue to count among their allies some of the most important second-wave feminists and intellectuals

While TERF ideology today is at times posited as a fringe position and one that is “anathema to the left,” trans-exclusionary radical feminists continue to count among their allies some of the most important second-wave feminists and intellectuals. (This is, again, by no means a uniform position; Gloria Steinem, who once wrote that “feminists are right to feel uncomfortable about the need for and uses of transsexualism” and praised Raymond, now says her views have changed, writing, “I believe that transgender people, including those who have transitioned, are living out real, authentic lives. Those lives should be celebrated, not questioned.”) In 2013, a group of leading feminists from the ’60s, including Carol Hanisch, Ti-Grace Atkinson, Kathie Sarachild, and Margo Jefferson, were so alarmed by what they saw as the “silencing of feminist criticism of gender” that they circulated an open letter. In it, they defended the right for radical feminists to “hold women-only conferences and criticize conventional ‘gender roles.’” They pinpointed the “rise of Gender Studies”—as opposed to women’s studies—as part of the problem:

“Gender Studies” has displaced the grassroots women’s liberation analysis of the late 1960s and early 1970s. An early embrace of the neutral idea of “sex roles” as a major cause of women’s oppression by some segments of the women’s liberation movement has morphed into the new language—but the same neutrality—of “gender roles” and “gender oppression.” With a huge boost from the “new” academic theory coming out of those programs, heavily influenced by post-modernism, “gender identity” has overwhelmed—when not denying completely—the theory that biological women are oppressed and exploited as a class by men and by capitalists due to their reproductive capacity.

Their statement continued: “Women often can no longer organize against our oppression in women-only groups without being pilloried with charges of transphobia.” And transitioning, they wrote, “undermines a solution for all, even for the transitioning person, by embracing and reinforcing the cultural, economic and political tracking of ‘gender’ rather than challenging it.”

If the desire to exclude trans women from feminism emerged out of a particular strain of the second-wave feminist movement, the turn toward to the right is also a phenomenon that some of those radical feminists pioneered. Recall the unholy alliance forged by anti-pornography radical feminists in the 1980s. Everything old is new again.

On a rainy Friday in early March, I made my way to a nondescript building in Manhattan’s Koreatown neighborhood, where WoLF had gathered to support the launch of the Women’s Declaration on Sex-Based Rights, an initiative by an organization with a limited online footprint, the Women’s Human Rights Campaign. (The name seems to serve as a pointed critique of the other Human Rights Campaign, given many of the participants’ antagonism towards the group.)

Jeffreys, the author of Gender Hurts, was WoLF’s featured guest, and I was curious to see the woman who has possibly done more to keep the flame of second-wave exclusion of trans women alive than perhaps anyone still alive. About 50 people—a mix of young and old, with makeup-free faces, buzz cuts, and either sensible shoes or Doc Martens—were there when I arrived. The event description had warned that “due to threats and harassment by transgender activists, the exact location of this launch won’t be released until two hours before the event.” No protestors showed up.

At the back, I spied Beck, wearing a shirt that proclaimed a lesbian was a “female homosexual.” I browsed through the zines and stickers displayed on the window ledge to the side of the room. The zines harkened towards radical feminism’s history—a mimeographed copy of a speech Andrea Dworkin gave in 1983; a copy of the foundational radical lesbian feminist text “Woman-Identified Woman,” which “redefined lesbianism as the quintessential act of political solidarity with other women,” in the words of the historian Echols. The stickers were more puerile: a glossy, phallic pink sticker that proclaimed, “WOMEN DON’T HAVE PENISES,” another that stated “BLEEDERS.” Someone had printed out a stack of stickers that could have come straight from 4chan, of a young blonde boy smacking his head à la Homer Simpson, superimposed with the text: “LAST WEEK I WAS A DOG. THIS WEEK I’M A GIRL. NEXT WEEK I’LL BE A ROBOT. DON’T GIVE ME SYNTHETIC HORMONES. BEING A CHILD IS NOT TRANSGENDERISM.”

she seemed less a respected academic than another cruel troll

Jeffreys made a name for herself as one of the most vocal anti-trans feminists, first in the United Kingdom and then in Australia where she taught for decades; sitting before a folding table, her silver hair shorn in a neat cap and her lined face grim, she seemed less a respected academic than another cruel troll. Her statements—likening trans activists to the men’s rights movement, describing trans women as “men playing out their sexual fantasies,” and warning apocalyptically of the billionaires funding the “transgender lobby”—are almost worth not repeating, except to underscore their outlandish nature.

The audience Jeffreys spoke to that night was small, as is the membership of WoLF, but I suspect that the latest embrace of TERFs and their talking points by influential Republicans and powerful right-wing activists is only beginning. It has become increasingly clear that their strategic alliance to limit the rights of trans people has new resonance in the Trump administration, stocked as it is with activists from the religious right, which has taken steps to gut everything from trans people’s access to health care to guidelines protecting the rights of trans students.

Women like Jeffreys and Beck will continue to assert that limiting the rights of trans women serves to protect women, a bigoted message delivered with a handful of feminist buzzwords. But if the radical feminist movement gave us a long list of women like Jeffreys and Greer and Morgan, women who have inspired a new generation of activists, it also gave us all of those women—the majority—who protested the exclusion of Beth Elliott in 1973 in Los Angeles. It is an enduring tragedy that their voices have not been louder.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin