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Clayman Conversations: Three scholars examine the TERF Industrial Complex

photo of Marquis Bey

Marquis Bey

Oct 5 2020

In a wide-ranging conversation hosted as part of the Clayman Conversations series, three scholars of gender and sexuality set out to think through the politics of trans exclusion, but ended up thinking through the energy and wonder of a trans inclusive feminism. While the main topic under discussion were the TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists) and the strange fellow travelers their position has attracted amidst conservatives, the alt right, and free speech absolutists, the conversation broadly dealt with  the experiences and priorities of transgender activists and academics, the intersections of feminism and race in discussions about trans inclusion, as well as questions both metaphysical and practical impacting trans lives. The Aug. 26 Clayman Conversations webinar “The TERF Industrial Complex: Transphobia, Feminism and Race” attracted high attendance and high traffic on Twitter, due to some controversy surrounding the topic and the terminology. 

Introducing the event, Clayman Institute Director Adrian Daub made clear that “the existence and legitimacy of trans voices within the feminist movement isn't something that we at the Clayman Institute feel is up for debate.” He emphasized that the event was about the strange political alliances around transphobic politics, and the very real human cost that continues to be exacted by transphobic policies and ideas. “We're interested in the counterintuitive and circuitous politics of trans exclusion, not the legitimacy of exclusion.”

Marquis Bey, assistant professor at Northwestern University, considered the power of TERFs. “I think the power TERFs have or deploy or subject themselves to comes from their … ability to maneuver through normative ways of thinking, which then gives them a little bit of clout and power by virtue of their proximity to things that are sanctioned by cis male supremacy.” Bey acknowledged the impact of anti-trans activists who organize to change laws around using bathrooms or accessing gender-affirmative surgeries. But even if such policy issues are taken off the table, they said, the power of the TERF remains: “TERFs seem to have the power to renaturalize and reinstall or to further solidify the stranglehold of the gender binary, which is in and of itself a mode of violence and violation.” But they do it, and allow deeply conservative social systems to do it, under the vague banner of feminism. 
 
Alluding to the fact that “TERF” is a label born online, and that many of the debates around trans identity take place in social media, Bey pointed to the effect such online transphobia nevertheless has: it makes a sport of denying trans identities, makes them questionable in ways that get replicated in the criminal justice system and elsewhere. “My claim is that there is a conditioning force, a kind of background noise and ground that enables those instances of violence to even be fathomable.” They said TERFs use “that background noise to cultivate the very ground on which to make their claims, and that then proliferates to do violation and harm to people with non-normative genders.”
 
Jules Gill-Peterson, associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh, also explored the enabling effect of this kind of denial of trans identity -- an enabling effect that extends into the minds of trans people. She pointed to “the TERF that lives inside my head, which is a sort of figuration that speaks to the … bodily life that transphobia has in reducing trans people's life chances for all of our well-being.” 
 

photo of Gill-Peterson
Jules Gill-Peterson

But of course, when it occurs in public discourse, the TERF position usually doesn’t acknowledge these very real consequences. Gill-Peterson observed that TERFs as political figures share “unlikely bedfellows” as part of a “transnational network of political actors across the spectrum, right and left.” Rather than talk to or about trans people directly, this network mobilizes certain figures that are threatened or concerned by the possibility of trans-ness: “One of the ones I've been the most interested in is the figure of the mom. The not coincidentally often white mom, who's terrified of their child becoming suddenly, with no explanation, trans. As if that were a thing.” Gill-Peterson remarked on other figures among the world of TERFs, including second-wave feminists from the 1970s.
 
Bey pointed out that TERF discourse places feminism on the side of figures that come out of traditional gender roles, rather than the ones that destabilize them. The “F”-part in the TERF acronym thus relies on nostalgia related to a certain moment in the history of the feminist movement. The TERF, Bey said, recalls “to the larger public the purported ‘golden years’ of feminist activism, which contrast with this supposed ‘too far’-ness of contemporary radical trans insurrectionary thinking [and] activism.” 
 
TERF discourse, in other words, is a way to cast certain kinds of feminism as beleaguered and under attack. But indeed, Gill-Peterson suggested, what is defended here is ultimately fairly retrograde: “There's a sort of rhetorical battle over who is the most humiliated, aggrieved white subject, and it's no surprise in my mind that white women step up to lead this political movement.” She pointed to class effects as well. “There's a horizontal line to draw to the problem of hyper visibility and the extreme violence and structural neglect that faces most trans people who are poor and who are of color, and who don't have time to be targeted online, and who are living under different conditions than the ones that TERFs imagine as reality.” In other words: TERFism consists of the neat trick of stoking fantastical (and frequently entirely hypothetical) fear about the trans person in the next bathroom stall, while minimizing the (very real) suffering of the trans person of color being murdered, brutalized or denied basic rights down the street.
 
Daub asked Grace Lavery, associate professor at UC-Berkeley, who is British, to comment on questions from the audience about perceptions that TERF-ism is particularly strong in the United Kingdom. In answer, Lavery proposed a framework of three main groups that have joined together under the TERF umbrella, many with prominent leaders in Britain. In the middle are the “gender-critical feminists,” a “more or less marginal group of feminist thinkers and activists” who, as Bey described them, are “very much a kind of nostalgic, second-wave-y form of feminist organizing and feminist ideology.” Another group Lavery termed the “anti-woke trolls,” including former sitcom writer Graham Linehan, who express an “extremely intense degree of animus” for trans individuals. Ties to the alt-right exist among this group. While this is “a kind of totally unacceptable, trolling, alt-right swamp,” Lavery said, “the gender criticals have made a pact” with them. 
 

“The TERF is the person that makes alt-right troll techniques and politics acceptable to liberals who under no other circumstances would acknowledge their relationship with or their debt to people like Milo Yiannopoulos. But because it's coming from this apparently embattled group of white feminists, that relationship is allowed to be sustained, and with a bit of luck, perhaps not for much longer.” -- Grace Lavery

But, Lavery said, “that pact, I think, is fracturing.” She cited “gender-critical” thinker Kathleen Stock, who now has disavowed a large part of the anti-trans movement online because of their offensive speech. Actions on social media, including the banning of Linehan from Twitter and the closing of a “gender-critical” sub-Reddit group, indicate discontent with this alliance as well. The third group of the alliance, the liberal institutionalists, have expressed concern about threats to free speech within academia and politics, “and they are willing to go along with the ‘gender-critical feminists,’ not realizing that they’re also getting into bed with the alt-right trolls.”
 
Daub commented on the alliances: “This discussion was conceived as an investigation into strange fellow travelers, because one of the things that struck us about trans exclusionary radical feminism is just where it popped up, and in league with whom, and with what forces. This was the question that got us interested.” Lavery’s answer: “The TERF is the person that makes alt-right troll techniques and politics acceptable to liberals who under no other circumstances would acknowledge their relationship with or their debt to people like Milo Yiannopoulos. But because it's coming from this apparently embattled group of white feminists, that relationship is allowed to be sustained, and with a bit of luck, perhaps not for much longer.”
 
Gill-Peterson observed that metaphysical arguments online highlighted race and class inequalities for trans women. “Fighting TERFs kind of always felt to me a little bit like a white trans issue.” She said, “I was thinking about how I did feel this sort of new form of silo-ing on social media,” where largely on Twitter, people were trying “to engage in some of these battles over the constitution of trans people's existence as a matter of free speech,” she said. “…For me it's like literally, that's Twitter. Then my Instagram is all Black trans and trans people of color circulating mutual aid projects, Go Fund Me, getting people out of jail, getting people housing … and I was thinking like, I guess I've never seen the word TERF there.” She speculated that trans people of color are not seen as “worthy enough to be harassed in that way, because they're so devalued.”
 
Lavery commented on finding a balance between online arguments and “boots on the ground” activism. The “whole sideshow of the spectacular forms of cruelty exhibited on a daily basis by the TERF industrial complex” is separate from “the real work that is happening under the sign of an industrial complex that is the reproduction of patriarchy, the reproduction of a medical industrial complex, the prison industrial complex, that goes to make life impossible and expendable, especially for trans people of color.”
 

photo of Grace Lavery
Grace Lavery

Lavery admitted, “I am someone who historically has made the mistake of getting too involved in Twitter bullshit, and I am moved by my colleagues’ and my comrades’ reminders that there is better and other work to do.”
 
Posing a final question to the panelists, Daub asked each to look to the future of such confrontations within the feminist community. Bey said, “I'm a student very much of black and trans feminists, and the future is being lived now.” They noted a “very, very difficult” path ahead. “I think what that might look like is going to be a very serious, perhaps even a muted, but nevertheless serious reckoning of how we want to exist in the world with one another.”
 
Gill-Peterson agreed: “I think the future will be what we’re already doing now.” She expressed a vision of “the glimpses of a life without transphobia that I get with other trans people, in community and activism.”
 
“I feel a tremendous degree of pride in being trans right now,” Lavery declared. “As Marquis says, the future is here and we're living it, and you know our lives don't depend” on the opinions of others. The conversation was marked by notable camaraderie and appreciation among the speakers, while it was acknowledged at the event’s end that the submitted audience questions (hidden from public view) revealed the significant backlash from an outspoken group in attendance.
 
The Clayman Institute for Gender Research has since 1974 conducted research around topics concerning feminism, gender and sexuality. Daub noted that part of translating this research for the public is hosting and participating in debates and discussions about topics about which we are not all in agreement. The Clayman Conversations is a series of such events, and the tradition continues as well with the Institute’s podcast, The Feminist Present.

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