A few weeks ago I ran across a few references to the acronym TERF, which stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminists. These references came from wildly divergent political sources (Slate and Breitbart, among others), which may be what made me pay attention. I’m not sure the movement itself is very important or has much staying power. What I’m more interested in is what TERF can tell us about language policing, identity politics, and the importance of the particular.
The short explanation of TERF (not their chosen acronym, by the way) or their trans counterparts, gender critical trans women, is that these folks question the identity politics dogma that trans women are actually women (a longer explanation can be found over at Slate). There’s more to it than that, of course, but I’m less concerned with their particular positions than with what this internecine conflict can tell us about gender identity in the modern world. Oddly enough, there’s some good news as we crawl to the end of the Year We Obsessed Over Identity.
The first bit of good news out of the TERF war (sorry) is that how one experiences gender is particular and uniquely personal. The recognition in recent years that people experience gender and sexuality in very different ways has allowed many people to live more authentic lives and to avoid some of (but not all of) the societal pressure and even violence that can accompany nonconformity. Such noncomformity is, of course, disruptive, and changes the way people interact with one another. But it also creates room for new ideas and ways of being. All that is good for freedom.
At the same time, as evidenced by the TERFs and other internal critics, is that this particularity will also push back against the rigid top-down demands of many in the identity politics world, whose policing of language and conflating of speech and aggression support precisely that conformity of thought that their own recognition of particularity should reject. Within this push and pull of authenticity versus conformity, it’s unlikely any one powerful group will come out on top. Gender critical transgender people will argue with transgender activists and the result will hopefully be a transgender community that is as diverse and particular and noisy as the non-transgender one. And, of course, as being transgender becomes normalized, much of the rhetoric will soften as both trans and non-trans communities find a lot of crossover in the other identities every individual inhabits. The great Venn diagram of human life wins again.
The other good news is that (hopefully) these disagreements demonstrate that it is possible to question the language of the identity police, even if just from within the left, and not be accused of advocating or supporting or facilitating true violence against anyone. And, of course, the flip side of that is just as (if not more) important: one can decry and reject violence against all peaceful nonconformists without accepting their worldview, their language, or even their understanding of their own identity.
Whatever else is going on with the TERF wars, their existence seems to suggest an increased opening for particularity, both within and between movements, that may eventually open up into a true respect for the individual, including individuals who disagree.
At the very least, there are now many many more ways of being an individual than ever before. And that’s cause for celebration.