By Deena Fahed A’23
Trans exclusionary radical feminists, or TERFs, are a plague on the contemporary feminist movement. Although these “gender critical” radical feminists comprise a relatively small percentage of people who call themselves feminists, they are a very vocal minority. J.K. Rowling made headlines earlier this month for tweeting that trans acceptance is a Trojan horse for the erasure of “real women’s” identities, adding yet another chapter to her long history of platforming transphobic messages. TERFs contribute heavily to dangerous cultural narratives about trans women, often expressing a vitriolic hatred for them. These narratives contribute to real world violence – nearly half of the trans population in the US experienced some form of harassment in the past year, 47% of them have been sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, and “trans panic” in still a legally viable defense against murder charges in 40 states – and this violence disproportionately affects trans women of color and lower income trans people.
TERFs reduce gender to biological anatomy in the same way conservatives do. The way they see it, men and women are two distinct groups: the oppressor and the oppressed. They view gender as a caste position; Lierre Keith, a speaker at the forum Radfems Respond described femininity as “ritualized submission.” Because of this binary worldview, TERFs can only conceptualize trans men as women attempting to “rise up” to men’s caste position (if they acknowledge the existence of trans men at all), and trans women as men who are fetishizing, and therefore perpetuating, a sexist, culturally derived image of femininity. They see men as inherently predatory and therefore, they see trans women who want the social inclusion of being welcome in women’s spaces as invaders who pose a threat to all the “natal women” there. TERFs often support these regressive theories by touting the profoundly unscientific work of sexologist Ray Blanchard.
Blanchard initially developed his transsexual typology in the 1980s based on surveys of trans women’s sexual interests (which he later admitted required further research to be empirically conclusive). Michael Bailey popularized it in 2003 with his book The Man Who Would Be Queen. The theory divides trans women into two groups: “homosexual” transsexuals (HSTS), who are only attracted to men, and autogynephiles, or “heterosexual” transsexuals, who are not exclusively attracted to men. Contrary to the mainstream theory that trans people transition to alleviate dysphoria, the theory holds that homosexual transsexuals transition to more successfully attract men and autogynephiles transition because their heterosexual desires are turned inward in an erotic target location error and manifest in a paraphilic desire to create a female version of themselves. They derive sexual pleasure by cross-dressing, imagining themselves as women, and being perceived as women by others. These two groups of women are described as differing outwardly in many ways, including that HSTS are very effeminate as children and transition early while autogynephiles transition in middle age and are significantly less feminine and sexually attractive (Bailey 2003). Trans women who deny their “paraphilia” are delusional or are lying about their experiences (Blanchard 1989). See Julia Serano’s essay “The Case Against Autogynephilia” for an in-depth refutation of this theory.
Blanchard’s transsexualim typology appeals to TERFs because it presupposes that trans women are men and reduces them to stereotypes of hypersexuality or perverse sexual dysfunction. It plays into the common cultural occurrence of misconstruing nonconforming people’s gender identities as manifestations of unconventional sexual desires and therefore characterizing all expression of their gender identities as an assault on those around them; the theory implies that to acknowledging a trans wlw’s (women-loving women) gender identity plays into their “delusions”, giving them a sexual kick. Ultimately, Blanchard’s theory gives TERFs a “scientific” basis for scapegoating trans women as the true feminine perpetrators of female objectification, allowing them to maintain their binary worldview and their conviction that the patriarchy exists because men oppress women, who are not complicit in their own oppression.
Radical feminist YouTuber Dianathedefender’s (two-part, two-hour) response to Natalie Wynn’s video essay refuting autogynephilia serves as a quasi-case-study on TERFs’ relationship with Blanchard’s theory because of her visceral reactions to Wynn’s arguments. First off, Diana seems to take pleasure in constantly misgendering and deadnaming Natalie, tossing phrases such as “guys like you” into her argument for good measure. She directs a barely controlled rage at Wynn throughout her entire argument. The most telling moment in her response comes after Wynn criticizes Michael Bailey’s book The Man Who Would Be Queen for its unscientific, highly sexualized content. She retorts by continually appealing to Bailey’s scientific authority: “he is a peer-reviewed researcher”, “you understand that he’s a scientist right?” Diana seems eager to defend the honor of a man who in this very book comments on women’s sexual attractiveness (or lack thereof) upon introducing them to the reader and frequently discusses certain women’s propensity for sex work; a man who, prior to this book’s publication, was most famous for holding an on-stage demonstration for one hundred students on how a “fucksaw” can bring a woman to orgasm. Her siding with a misogynistic man rather than conceding to criticism of him exemplifies how TERFs’ vitriol towards trans women can result in a blinding level of cognitive dissonance that preserves the supposed validity of their discrimination against trans women. This dissonance stops Diana from seeing that trans women are not fetishists acting on an erotic conception of womanhood because they wear “skirts and thigh-high boots”, but that Bailey’s accounts themselves are fetishizing, and that trans women might dress more provocatively early in transition for the same reason teenage cis women do: they are informed by a society that does have an erotic conception of womanhood. It prevents her from seeing the irony in her suggestion (in response to Wynn’s argument that what is pathologized as “autogynephilia” in trans women, an attraction to the idea of oneself as the object of sexual desire, exists in cis people) that every cis woman who says she buys lingerie and says “it’s not for men, it’s for me” is deluded because she is really thinking about how a hypothetical man might react to her wearing it – in other words, the absurdity of a feminist suggesting that a woman cannot view her body or express her sexuality outside of the context of male approval. It prevents TERFs from realizing that trans women experience the same kinds of oppression cis women (particularly nonconforming cis women) do, and it is therefore in the interest of cis feminists to fight against transphobia, not vehemently defend it. Far from seeking to “replace” or endanger cis women in any way, trans women simply want to attain, in Wynn’s words, “the same level of sadness and dysfunction as everyone else”.
As Wynn argues, Blanchard’s theory pathologizes normal female sexuality when it appears in trans women; Charles Moser found that cis women also experience arousal centered around the fantasy of embodying an ideal vision of femininity, and a Penn State study on morbidly obese women after gastric bariatric surgery found that their sexual desire and arousal increased significantly after they lost weight. Sexual fantasies always involve both the presence of another’s body and one’s own body; instead of being a distinct paraphilia, cross-gender arousal is simply a result of dysphoria, an example of individuals fantasizing about having the ideal body their sexual experiences would take place from. Sapphic trans women experiencing an attraction to themselves as feminine objects of desire more often than their androphilic counterparts can be explained by their preexisting attraction to women.This aligns with what I, Serano, and many others have gathered in informal conversations with bisexual cis women: colloquially speaking, “autogynephilia” is not a trans-specific paraphilia, it’s just a tendency shared by sapphic women and bottoms.
It is imminently obvious to me as a bisexual cis woman that the characterization of cis wlw perfectly echoes the misogynistic transphobia underlying Blanchard’s typology. Bisexual cis women are hypersexualized because like “homosexual transsexuals”, they are feminine people stereotyped as nymphomaniacs. However, many straight men are inevitably put off by real-life female bisexuality when they realize that it is actually about having sex with other women and not merely an excuse for them to fantasize about you kissing girls. When they realize this, their tone switches to something that feels a lot more like how cis male researchers portray sapphic trans women. Ray Blanchard characterizes sapphic trans women as unfeminine, less authentically trans, and entirely distinct from straight trans women for the same reason that some men insist that cis wlw aren’t “really” attracted to women and “just need a good f*cking”: they can’t conceptualize a feminine person who does not exist purely to serve their sexual interests. Radfems eagerly defend their cis lesbian “sisters” – even advocating for political lesbianism and denouncing bisexual women who date men – but when other women are being harmed by the fact that their existence does not serve heterosexual men’s libidos they see it as the time to agree with and espouse the ideas of these sexist researchers who in any other situation they would characterize as the “male oppressor”. TERFs are traitors to the modern feminist movement, willing to sacrifice more vulnerable women for their own gain when it serves their political interests.
A large portion of online radical feminist discourse exclusively targets “autogynephiles”. In fact, I have never seen a TERF specifically criticize homosexual transsexuals. On a surface level, this makes absolutely no sense; the latter is a lot better at “appropriating” femininity according to Blanchard and Bailey. The only possible explanation for this vitriol towards “autogynephiles” is sexism. TERFs are just as biased against queer and gender-nonconforming and women as cis men. After all, they sure do love talking about “knuckly, hairy, be-ringed paws” for people who are not. TERFs’ biases reveal themselves when they have someone more socially outcast than themselves to direct their hatred at. Even though they call trans women oppressors, TERFs must have some level of awareness that trans women face more oppression than them. TERFs’ insistence that trans women benefit from male privilege flies in the face of their own constant mockery of trans women. This guise of righteousness lets them express their misogyny freely. It allows them to hallucinate that justice is on their side when they verbally attack newly out trans women on Twitter for being too feminine or not feminine enough, to maintain that doing so constitutes retaliation against the male oppressor instead of simple misogynistic harassment. The fact that TERFs direct far more animosity towards “autogynephiles” than their straight counterparts comprises clear evidence that their hatred is not a result of these women “actually being men”, but a result them not fitting the mold of conventional femininity.
Transphobia is rooted in sexism in the same way that homophobia directed towards lesbians is rooted in men’s perception that women should exist for their sexual pleasure, and how straight men’s mockery of gay men rests on the stereotype of effeminacy. TERFs’ insistence that trans women should not be allowed in women’s spaces mirrors the homophobic fear-mongering about lesbians and gay men sharing locker rooms with straight people that plagued public discourse a decade ago. The entire basis of intersectional feminism is that feminine people who belong to minority groups face even more oppression than those who don’t, and sexism that is otherwise eliminated will reemerge in the discriminatory treatment of women of color and queer women. Just last year, a black trans woman named Titi Gulley was lynched in Portland, Oregon, her death immediately ruled a suicide by law enforcement. Transphobia is far from dying out and cis women need to stand with all women, now more than ever. There is no doubt in my mind that the Cooper Union student body is less transphobic than the general population, but to any “gender critical” feminists that may be reading this, know that a transphobic feminist is a walking contradiction, and that sapphic trans women are more my sisters than you fuckers could ever be.
If you are a trans person currently struggling with your mental health or financial situation here’s a list of resources and organizations available to you. If you would like to help end transphobic violence and provide aid to trans people in need, here is a list of organizations you can donate to:
Advocates for the health, housing, and employment needs of black trans people.
Advocates for the needs of Trans Latin@ immigrants in the US and provides access to comprehensive resources and services for trans, gender nonconforming, and intersex people in the LAX area
Provides education, advocacy, and support for transgender youth and their families
Provides housing, health, and employment support to LGBTQ individuals in the Chicago area
Works to create gender sensitive and inclusive environments for all children and teens