In the responses to JK Rowling’s challenge to the more extremist (and vocal) factions of transgender activists, there has been much more name-calling than reasoning. The most common such epithet has been to call her (or anyone else) a TERF, a “trans-exclusionary radical feminist.”
Having been deeply involved in the science and clinical care of trans people for more than two decades, I have watched this particular term evolve and lose whatever meaning it originally had. It used to refer to the most extreme of the other side: There do indeed exist genuinely transphobic people who will refuse to recognize anyone’s transition under any circumstances and are accurately called TERF’s. Now just a social media meme however, the term is bandied so broadly that it no longer carries any meaning at all.
I must first challenge the ironically binary premise that “exclusion” is all or none. It’s only in the current climate of extremism that no moderate views get discussed. Here is a range of some areas in which sex/gender require protection:
• Public accommodation…
• Locker rooms/showers, with nudity (sauna, hottub…)
• Locker rooms/washrooms, sex segregated
• Competitive sports teams, where physical size is an advantage
It would be perfectly accurate to call someone “trans exclusionary” for rejecting transpeople from all of these. But that’s not meaningfully the same as (for example) a cis-woman who supports all civil rights, but feels uncomfortable naked in a locker room with a person whose every external feature is male (i.e., their female features are all internal). I’m not saying I *agree* with this hypothetical cis-woman—I am pointing out the error of painting this entire range of opinions with a single dichotomous brush and dismissing them all as if they were all the most extreme imaginable.
Also on a spectrum is the point during transition at which one can/may/should be deemed which sex:
• Upon declaration
• Upon psych/medical exam/approval
• Upon declaration *despite* psych/medical exam results
• Upon part-time social living
• Upon full-time social living
• Upon hormone treatment
• Upon genital surgery
It’s easy to recognize “never” as genuinely transphobic/exclusionary. But it is not meaningful to use the same term for everyone who breaks from the opposite extreme, based only on a recent (sometimes even curiously convenient) self-declaration.
Relatedly, there also exists debate over the age at which a youth should be permitted to begin to transition, socially and/or medically:
• Prepuberty (upon request/demand from child)
• Age 12 (mid-puberty, breaking point in outcomes research)
• Age 16 (usual age of consent for sex)
• Age 18 (legal age of adulthood)
• Age 25 (final brain maturation)
I support age 12, not for any ideological reason, but because that is what the (current) evidence supports: The majority of prepubescent kids cease to feel trans during puberty, but the majority of kids who continue to feel trans after puberty rarely cease. To someone who supports “upon demand,” however, everyone everywhere else on the spectrum is the same as the farthest opposite extreme. It is not meaningful to claim that wait-until-12 is the same as never.
To repeat, I am not actually taking sides on any of these issues (except to indicate what is vs. not consistent with the science). Rather, I am pointing out that “TERF” does not meaningfully convey anyone’s ideas about anything. It is being used only as an epithet, to discredit rather than inform, holding even the slightest symbolic evidence of the smallest departure from one extreme as proof of membership of the other extreme....It is being used as an excuse not to engage with what the person is *actually* saying.