Your Arguments Against TERFs Are Missing the Point

On June 6, amid a global pandemic, J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, took to Twitter to air her grievances about an article concerning menstrual health hygiene in a “post-COVID-19 world.” Rowling’s initial tweet made a point about the lack of the word “women”:

Despite immediate backlash, Rowling doubled down on the rhetoric, arguing that “ . . . if sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased.” She took it even further, publishing an almost four-thousand-word blog post defending and explaining her beliefs. In the post, she expressed concern that many young transgender people are choosing to medically transition because it’s “trendy.” She also argued that teenagers are more likely to believe they are trans because of societal misogyny.

Making the choice to transition is not easy, and transitioning is not as simple as Rowling claims. Depending on insurance and the medical provider, trans people may need to see a therapist in order to be approved for hormone replacement therapy or surgery. Often, medically transitioning requires an official diagnosis of gender dysphoria. All parts of transitioning, from hormones to surgery to name changes, can be incredibly expensive. In some cases, insurance will not cover procedures for trans people. Transitioning is not as simple as walking into a doctor’s office and asking for hormone replacement therapy. Choosing to medically transition—or just to come out as transgender—requires a lot of introspection and consideration of the costs and benefits. 

Existing as a transgender person is not easy, and calling it “trendy” harms people, particularly young people, who are coming to terms with their identity. The number of people who identify as LGBT is increasing—as of 2017, 4.5 percent of Americans identified as LGBT, an increase from 4.1 percent in 2016. More members of Gen Z identify as LGBT than any other generation; in one survey, only 48 percent identified as “completely heterosexual.” A 2017 study found that more people ages 13–17 identified as transgender than people eighteen and older.

The increasing number of young people identifying as LGBT is positive—it means that they’re growing up in a world that is more open to, and accepting of, the existence and experiences of LGBT people.

Despite the transphobia in her tweets and blog post, Rowling claimed that she “want[s] trans women to be safe.” She also said that she “would march with you if you were discriminated against on the basis of being trans.”

In 2019, at least twenty-six transgender or gender non-conforming people were murdered in the United States; so far in 2020, at least fifteen have been killed. From 2018 to 2019, police in Rowling’s native United Kingdom recorded 2,333 hate crimes against trans people. On June 12, not even a week after Rowling’s transphobic tirade, the Trump administration moved to strip LGBTQ healthcare protections.

This isn’t the first time Rowling has spouted transphobic rhetoric. In December 2019, she tweeted in support of a woman who was fired from her job for posting transphobic and trans-exclusionary statements on Twitter. Rowling has also liked transphobic tweets and follows several openly transphobic people. She doesn’t follow any openly trans people or trans activists.

Rowling’s beliefs and arguments fall into the category of TERF ideology. TERFs, or trans-exclusionary radical feminists, are people (most often cisgender women) who believe that transgender women are not women. TERFs believe that transgender women are actively harming cis women by allowing “men” to enter women’s spaces. TERF rhetoric also includes the idea that trans men aren’t actually men, but rather women who have been coerced into believing that they are men. 

Several actors related to the Harry Potter universe, including Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Eddie Redmayne, responded to Rowling’s comments with support for the transgender community. Many other people, celebrities and non-celebrities alike, took the opportunity to criticize Rowling online for her transphobic beliefs. 

That’s all well and good. It’s a relief to see so many people, particularly cisgender people with large platforms, speak out against transphobic beliefs. The problem is that many of their arguments miss the point of supporting transgender people. For many, simply tweeting “trans women are women” is where their activism stops. It seems like a lot of cisgender people haven’t properly researched how best to support and defend trans people, particularly trans women.

One common retort to Rowling’s tweets was that there are cis women who don’t menstruate.  That’s true. There are plenty of cis women who don’t menstruate for any number of reasons. Menstruation does not define a woman, and reducing the experience of womanhood to the existence and functionality of a uterus is regressive.

But the validity of trans women is not dependent on the experiences of cis women. Framing the argument this way makes it sound like trans women are only valid because some cis women have similar experiences. 

Trans women are women. Full stop. The validity of their identity is not conditional on what specific aspects of “womanhood” they personally experience.

Making arguments around biology validates transphobia, even if that isn’t the intention. There are women who don’t menstruate­, but there are also men and non-binary people who do. Whether someone menstruates does not determine their identity, and reducing the argument to a biology conversation misses the point.

It’s difficult to believe that Rowling and other TERFs don’t know about the existence of cis women who don’t menstruate; Rowling is past the average age of menopause. That isn’t the argument that they’re making, and treating all TERFs as ignorant does nothing to actually confront their beliefs.

These people want to exclude trans women from their definition of “women” because they are hateful and transphobic. They aren’t trying to argue that cis women who don’t menstruate are men. They are specifically targeting trans women.

TERFs claim that trans women are harming them simply by existing and their solution is to claim that trans women don’t exist at all. The argument isn’t about who does and doesn’t menstruate. It’s about narrowing the definition of “womanhood,” reducing gender identity to biological sex, and painting trans women as intruders in women’s spaces.

Responses to Rowling and other transphobes shouldn’t be about calling them stupid. They should be about protecting and respecting the trans women actively harmed by their beliefs.

Trans women are women. Trans men are men. Non-binary people are non-binary. Reducing arguments against trans people to biology is outdated and incorrect. As the scientific community and the public gain a better understanding of sex, chromosomes, and gender identity, it’s becoming increasingly clear that sex and gender are not the same thing, and that sex, like gender, exists along a spectrum. Experiences of gender identity are unique to every person. Any trans person could tell you that.

Supporting trans people, however, needs to go beyond simple rhetoric. When you say, “trans women are women and trans men are men,” do you really believe it? Do you address trans people the way that they want to be addressed, regardless of their gender presentation and their choice to transition? Are you willing to fight for the rights of trans people to receive proper health care? Do you stand up for trans people when others make jokes about them?

Just as not being racist isn’t enough to fight racism, not being transphobic isn’t enough to fight transphobia. You have to be actively anti-transphobic, and that means educating yourself and listening to trans people about how you can best support them. It means resisting the urge to criticize TERFs just to pat yourself on the back for being a “good ally.”

If you really want to be a good ally, take action, speak out, and put your money where your mouth is. Donate to causes that support trans people. Stand up for trans people and lift their voices rather than speaking over them. Listen to their experiences and accept criticism when it comes.

Activism should never be about proving yourself to be “one of the good ones.” It should be about caring for marginalized people because you believe that they have the same right to life and happiness as everyone else. Don’t give in to rhetoric about biology. Don’t stoop to TERFs’ level and allow them to dictate the conversation.

And if you really, really want to tweet “Trans women are women. Trans men are men. Non-binary people are non-binary,” then pay your ally tax by donating a few bucks to organizations that support trans people.

Do your part to protect and uplift trans people. We need you right now.

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