Updated: Jun 6
I've been hesitating about this post for a while, and for a variety of reasons. However, watching the reactions of TERF and SWERF groups to the recent #BlackLivesMatter protests, and attempts by the trans and sex worker movements to bring attention to the discrimination and police brutality suffered by black and trans sex workers, I knew now was the time to post. The fact that local 'gender-critical' feminist groups are now popping up everywhere and organising over social media (including, of course, Mumsnet) is something that I believe needs drawing attention to if we are to fully combat the insidious reach of this ideological cult.
I have written previously about my experience with abolitionist feminists as a survivor of abuse within the sex industry and a former sex worker, and how I was initially sucked in by their claims to want to liberate women from abuse. I have mentioned how these 'feminists' were always the same women who described themselves as 'gender critical' and against Self-ID, and how this always descended into abject mockery of trans women. Perhaps out of shame at my own complicity in this for a time, I have resisted writing in great detail about this aspect. But as the movement continues to grow and transphobia to rise, I cannot stay silent.
No doubt, another reason I have resisted writing is because I counted some of these women as my friends. I feel a sense of 'being a traitor' in writing this - something the trolls have already accused me of simply for turning my back on the Nordic Model. But it is my hope that at least some of those women, if they see this, will take some time to reflect on their damaging and harmful beliefs.
I was invited to join a local feminist group by a woman I knew quite well, which she had organised over Facebook. The main thrust of the group was that it was radical feminist, and the consensus was that trans women were not allowed (yet they still insisted that the incredibly apt acronym 'TERF' was a slur). My friend had herself come to this conclusion by going to radfem conferences, reading their writings and joining groups on social media. She sent me a lot of information on how TRAs (trans rights activists) were forming cults and seeking to take over women's spaces and even get rid of the word 'woman.' But all of the trans women I had known and loved were nothing like this, I protested. I was told this was different, that there was an insidious and well funded lobby that were seeking to roll back women's rights and were none other than 'mens rights activists in dresses.' Quite why I gave this any consideration, looking back, I don't truly understand. I was in the grip of the abolos at this point and going through some severe trauma processing, but this is really no excuse for being so gullible.
The group was named 'FWOC' for 'Feminist Women of Coventry' and consisted of all white and predominantly upper-middle-class women. A university professor. A doctor. A tribunal judge. There was also a women's services manager, a counsellor at a women's service and an IDVA (independent domestic violence survivor). As a working-class, former sex worker and drug addict, I immediately felt out of place. However, as someone who was doing the survivor speaker circuit, I was constantly told how brave and inspiring I was. On reflection, I wanted these women's approval.
Because these were relatively powerful women. Women who wield a great deal of privilege in their local communities, and this is where it all becomes quite sinister, because policy-makers and officials listen to these women, undoubtedly a great deal more than they do transwomen or sex workers. While these women bleated on about having their rights taken away and being persecuted, they were living privileged lives, never having to worry about where their next meal was coming from, or being hassled by cops or social services. The cops and social services were their friends.
While these women bleated on about having their rights taken away and being persecuted, they were living privileged lives, never having to worry about where their next meal was coming from, or being hassled by cops or social services. The cops and social services were their friends.
I tried on occasion to talk about class, and was ignored. I tried to point out that most trans people are simply trying to survive, and was told 'oh, but we don't hate trans women, we just want them to stop pretending to be women.' When I gathered up enough courage to tell them that I had had a relationship with a trans woman and had never seen her as anything but a woman - because indeed, that is what she was - I was stared at as though I had suddenly sprouted two heads. For the first time in my life I felt ashamed of that relationship, as though I had done something wrong and my sexuality (bi/pan) was now something to be ashamed of.
It's probably worth pointing out here that few of the women in this particular group were lesbians or actually in any way radical in their 'feminism'. At least half were married to wealthy white men. If there is anything I particularly want to expose in this article it is that TERFs are not simply a fringe group. They are mainstream.
'Resisting the trans cult' was on the agenda at every single meeting. Often meetings descended into nothing more than mocking prominent trans women. Munroe Bergdorf, a trans woman of colour, seemed to come in for particular vitriol, and this seemed to be based on little more than the fact that she is highly attractive. It was this point I realised that the object of their hatred wasn't the supposed 'TRA cult' but just trans women, period. Trans men were viewed with pity and condescension. Trans women were the enemy, because they were 'men' (the levels of misandry, even amongst the married women, were also shocking).
And trans women couldn't win. If they 'passed' they were appropriating. If they didn't 'pass' they were 'fake.' Books by Janice Raymond, Germaine Greer and Sheila Jeffreys were handed around as though they were sacred texts. Posie Parker videos were watched as though they were broadcasts from the Queen (who I don't approve of either). The final straw for me, at which point I knew I could no longer sit in silence and swallow the rhetoric being pushed, was when Posie Parker stickers saying 'Woman = Adult Human Female' were ordered in bulk and a sticker campaign started. Unisex toilets were the target. When I protested that this was bullying and could seriously distress a trans person who came across these I was told 'well they shouldn't be there in the first place.' There was no discussion of where they should then go if even unisex toilets were out of bounds.
I left, giving my awful experiences with the abolos as my reason, still not brave enough to voice exactly what I thought about their transphobia. I am angry with myself about this, but I also know that sitting in my guilt serves no-one. Instead, I will speak up about what I saw, and commit to being a better trans ally from now on, and that starts with exposing this nonsense, because it is dangerous nonsense. While a bunch of privileged white cis women having clandestine meetings to talk about their transphobia may seem laughable and risible, the fact is that these attitudes are growing and spreading. Women are being radicalised on Mumsnet (this is a common story that I was told by the women themselves) convinced that their reproductive and parenting rights are being challenged. TERFs, just like SWERFs, use peoples biggest fears to convince them of their views. Tell mothers that TRAs are after their children, tell rape survivors that trans women are rapists, and you have easy targets for radicalisation.
We - by which I mean allies, as trans folk and sex workers have no choice to ignore them - need to start taking TERFs and SWERFs seriously as hate groups, and reaching those who are vulnerable to their ideological brainwashing. Allies need to do better (yes, I am pointing those fingers back at myself) to protect trans folk and sex workers and amplify their voices. Particularly, at this time, the voices of those who are of colour and live under police brutality.