Activists protesting against North Carolina's HB2 Law that restricts to those who are gay or transgender. April, 2016 Photo: J. Bicking /

The racist roots of transgender exclusion

  • December 18, 2019

Gender & Governmentality

Trans exclusivity draws upon a long history of scientific racism and white women’s tears — and it’s being absorbed by the liberal mainstream.

On October 29, 2019, hundreds of protesters gathered outside Toronto Public Library to protest an event called “Gender Identity: What does it Mean for Society, the Law, and Women.” Protesters held up signs proclaiming “No TERFs on our Turf” and “Our library should be a #safespace and not a #hatespace.”

Inside, Meghan Murphy, founder of polarizing news site Feminist Current, gave a half hour speech to much acclaim. Murphy is a well known name in Canada, where she is a self-labeled feminist and anti-transgender activist. In 2017, she testified in the Canadian senate to oppose Bill C-16, which aimed to protect gender identity and expression under the Human Rights Code, calling it “regressive,” and asking the senate “if we say that a man is a woman based on something as vague as a feeling… what does that impact have on women’s rights?” Her testimony implied that trans women are simply “men with feelings,” denying trans women physical womanhood. Her transphobic views are well known and well respected, both by the Canadian government and in feminist spaces.

During her speech for Toronto Public Library, Murphy spoke in a calm, measured voice. The only emotion she showed was exasperation. “I have never advocated for violence. I’ve never engaged in hate speech. I’ve never said that trans women are not real women. What I have said is that trans-identified males are male,” she said.

Throughout her speech, she framed the protesters outside as crazy and irrational, and herself in contrasting terms: “I’m not passive, I’m not irrational, I’m not over-emotional.” She aligned herself with logic, suggesting that the protesters outside are bigots.

Trans-exclusive feminist ideology is not limited to Canada. It’s also taking root in the British Parliament. On May 1, 2019, Scottish National Party Member of Parliament Joanna Cherry distributed images from Twitter depicting anti-TERF sentiment and claimed that “TERF” was a slur against all women, without explaining what it actually stands for. Cherry, a white woman, used her platform to decry Dominique McLean, better known as SonicFox, a Black, non-binary gay man who vocally defends trans women. This is one of several examples of white women claiming that any call for action against TERFs equates to violence against women.

Trans-exclusive radical feminist ideology has also been present in feminist movements in Argentina, in the organization Womad in South Korea, and in South Africa, where restrooms created during apartheid exclude trans people of color.

But why is trans-exclusive radical feminism so successful? Why is it being accepted within the liberal mainstream, when they are making the same transphobic arguments as right-wing conservatives? The history behind their rhetoric has roots in two trends in Western countries: scientific racism and white women’s tears.

The TERF movement is entwined with racism; the biggest purveyors of trans exclusion are white women, and the people who suffer most from transphobic violence are Black women.

Where feminists and conservatives collide

Trans-exclusive radical feminism, often shortened to “TERF,” was coined in 2008 by Viv Smythe. She wrote an article about the term and expressed her continued support for the trans community. However, trans exclusion has existed in LGBT spaces long before it was named.

In “Transgender History in the United States,” trans activist Genny Beemyn covers the history of rhetoric used to exclude trans people. In the 1970s, some members of the gay and lesbian community rejected trans women, calling them “male infiltrators” who had “the mentality of a rapist.” The term transmisogyny, meaning misogyny against trans women, was coined by Julia Serano in her 2007 book Whipping Girl.

The basic concern of trans-exclusive radical feminists is the lack of regulations for the meaning of “transgender.” TERFs view the oppression of women as based almost solely on women being born “female,” with women being oppressed and assaulted as a birthright. Trans people inherently complicate this narrative. A major concern that TERFs posit is that the existence of trans identity opens the door to predatory men masquerading as trans women in order to gain access to “women’s only” spaces. These spaces include women’s shelters, prisons, and bathrooms, where trans women will supposedly abuse and assault cisgender women and girls. Because of this risk, trans women — who TERFs often label “trans identified males” — should not be permitted in “female spaces” at all.

This ideology is very similar to that of right-wing conservatives. It is based in the homophobic and transphobic idea that gay and trans people are a threat to women and children, and that they are inherently abusive. But while conservative values are decried by liberals, TERF values are getting traction in modern feminist movements. For both TERFs and conservatives, trans women asserting their womanhood is unquantifiable, and therefore false.

Transmisogyny as Scientific Racism

In her talk, Murphy uses the language of western science to make herself appear more credible. She says that “trans-identified males are male and this is not an insult… this is a just and material reality, a biological reality… Everyone knows this. This is not a belief or an opinion. This is a fact.” However, Murphy never acknowledges that the very concept of “male” and “female” are western constructs, ignoring that other cultures have historically had different conceptions of gender.

More importantly, the concept of “biology” itself has been used — and continues to be used — to enforce not only transphobia but also racism. Human biology as we know it was founded by white colonists, and it pathologized race, framing it as genetic difference, in order to more easily subjugate non-white people.

“Science” in all contexts must be viewed critically, with an understanding of the perspectives through which it is viewed. There are countless examples of science being used to justify discrimination. Scientific racism has been used most often against Black people globally since the colonization of the American and African continents.

White people wielded the terminology of science as an “objective and rational” tool to justify slavery. They argued that enslaved Black people were inherently less human, that they had a “disease” that made them want to run away from enslavement. In 1994, The Bell Curve by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray claimed that Black Americans are naturally inferior because of lower IQ scores.

Transphobic pseudoscience can be seen in Janice Raymond’s The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, a book that came out in 1979 but was reissued in 1994. In the book, Raymond claims that trans people psychologically and surgically reinforce gender stereotypes. She even goes as far as to argue — with no evidence — that trans-affirming surgeries were developed in nazi concentration camps.

Genny Beemyn explains that “for Raymond, transsexual women are not women but ‘castrated’ and ‘deviant’ men who were a creation of the medical and psychological specialties that arose… Ignoring centuries of gender nonconformity in cultures around the world, she erroneously considers transsexuality to be a recent phenomenon stemming from the development of genital surgeries.”

While TERFs today might not always use comparisons as extreme as Raymond, they do use the terminology of modern medicine to denounce gender nonconformity, disregarding long histories of people outside the western gender binary. Human biology, constructed by those in power and used to advance oppression, views the colonized and the enslaved as subjects to study, deviations from a white, cisgender norm.

Transmisogyny as White Women’s Tears

Murphy, as a white woman, is able to wield the “logic” of her argument by using biology. However, she also weaponizes the victimhood of white women in order to villainize trans people. In her talk, she emphasizes that putting trans women in women’s prisons puts “real” women at risk, and she calls these trans women “violent men, sexual predators being housed with women in prison.”

But trans women are not, and never have been, inherently abusive. Anyone is capable of assaulting others in shelters and prisons, and trans people are statistically much more likely to be victims of such abuse. According to the Human Rights Campaign, 47% of trans people in the United States are sexually assaulted over their lifetime. The fear of Black trans women is based in further marginalizing an already oppressed and Othered community.

The most famous illustration of white women’s tears and the violence they inspire was the killing of Emmet Till, a 14-year-old African American boy who in 1955 was lynched by white men for allegedly flirting with a white woman, Carolyn Bryant.

At the trial, Bryant said that Till had grabbed her waist and said, “I’ve been with white women before.” But years later, she admitted that he had never grabbed her waist or said obscene things to her. Regardless, Bryant’s claims had the power to kill a Black boy. White women have always been able to use their perceived victimhood to instigate violence against anyone already hated and feared.

There are many modern examples of white women’s victimhood being weaponized against people of color, particularly Black people. In “Crying Shame: The power of White Women’s Tears,” Ruby Hamad explains that “white women have largely chosen to navigate and bolster the existing system to gain some advantages, which necessarily come at the expense of people of color. This has meant adopting the persona of the damsel in distress.”

While Hamad’s essay is about white women who weaponize their identity against Black men, white women’s tears are effectively used against trans women. The victims of most transphobic hate crimes have been Black trans women. In the United States, out of the 22 murders of trans people in 2019, 18 were Black trans women. In Brazil, the country with the most murders of transgender people, 82 percent of the trans people killed in 2018 were Black or Brown.

It is also not a coincidence that Murphy, along with the librarian who gave her a platform even after the public outpouring of protest and concern, and many other women who share Murphy’s transphobic ideology are all white. This is not because women of color are not capable of transmisogyny. Rather, the western culture that teaches transphobia is upheld by white institutions and spread through colonialism, and white women’s voices have always been prioritized over women of color. It is doubtful that a Black woman would have been able to give a transphobic presentation with such a public platform — because they are rarely allowed platforms at all.

White women have never needed to explicitly call for violence in order for it to be enacted against Black people. White men, both in mobs of the KKK and the police, jump to defend white women and kill those who white women say have hurt them. Allowing white women an uncritical platform to preach prejudice as if it is truth puts Black trans women in danger.

Pay attention

Murphy balances two arguments: the logic of western science and the perceived victimhood of white women. Those who oppose her are simultaneously called misogynistic because they are fighting against a woman, and too emotional to be valid. The movement of trans exclusive radical feminism has been so prolific only because it frames a deeply powerful group — white women — and poses them as the victims of Black and brown trans women. Unsurprisingly, there is plenty of evidence of TERFs allying with white supremacy.

Contradictory to Murphy’s claims, transmisogynistic violence is very real, and its rate is increasing. In 2018, 26 trans people were killed in the US, most of them Black women. Forbes Magazine reported that there were 331 recorded murders of trans people internationally — though the real number is likely much higher — over a one-year period between 2018 and 2019.

White women use their social position to spread hateful rhetoric that leads to violence. What’s more, TERFs are trying to exclude trans women from the very spaces where they could find refuge from abuse and assault. Forcing trans women out of women’s shelters and into men’s shelters or the streets will only put them in more danger of violence.

Rather than hoping for TERFs to change, it is most important to understand their rhetoric and keep it from spreading and causing harm. A conversation will not stop their transmisogyny or the violence they incite against Black trans people. How can self-identified liberal institutions challenge transmisogyny? The Toronto Public Library claims to value inclusion and integrity, yet gave trans-exclusive radical feminism a platform. The library’s mission and values of equity, inclusion, and accountability do not seem to be in conflict with their views on TERF ideology.

Just recently, it was announced that Meghan Murphy has another central library event in Seattle, one of the most progressive cities in the United States. The event, “Fighting the New Misogyny: A Feminist Critique of Gender Identity,” looks to incorporate violent transmisogyny into liberal movements in Seattle. Whether or not they will succeed is up to the Seattle Libraries, who are currently debating whether they should cancel the event.

Pay attention. When TERFs come knocking on the doors of liberal institutions, they will not be asking outright for violence. They will come with well-thought-out speeches and PowerPoint presentations and statistics. While the protesters outside will be angry at their subjugation, the TERFs inside will appear to be calm and reasonable, preaching that the most vulnerable among us are less than human.

William Lau

William Lau is a writer and student of American Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington, where he is also programming coordinator at the Q Center.

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