What is a “TERF” and why are people accusing J.K. Rowling of being one?

What is a “TERF” and why are people accusing J.K. Rowling of being one?
Source: Dia Dipasupil

On Saturday, June 6, J.K. Rowling, the British author best known for the Harry Potter series, set off a firestorm on Twitter with a single tweet.

Her comments in relation to an article about “people who menstruate” were rapidly denounced as transphobic and soon her name was trending on Twitter along with the acronym “TERF.”

TERF stands for “trans-exclusionary radical feminist” and has come to represent a major divide within feminism. While this is not the first time Rowling has been accused of holding transphobic beliefs, the social media uproar over the latest incident has brought the debate to a larger audience.

What is the J.K. Rowling controversy?

The controversy started when Rowling shared an opinion article entitled, “Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate” and then commented, “‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?” The article in question stated, “An estimated 1.8 billion girls, women, and gender non-binary persons menstruate.”

Though Rowling’s tweet has received over 76,000 likes, many of the responses expressed anger or dismay, including sentiments such as “trans rights are human rights” and “people who menstruate include trans men.” Critics say that Rowling is explicitly stating that transgender women are not women, a view at odds with many feminists and LGBTQ+ activists.

Rowling received support from some followers who argued that biological gender is immutable, but the tenor of most responses was critical. Nonetheless, the author appeared undeterred, tweeting the next day in response to a critical comment, “‘Feminazi’, ‘TERF’, ‘bitch’, ‘witch’. Times change. Woman-hate is eternal.”

Among those who expressed disagreement with Rowling was the British actor Daniel Radcliffe, who played Harry Potter in all eight blockbuster movies based on the books. In a statement, Radcliffe said, “transgender women are women.”

Is J.K. Rowling transphobic?

This recent Twitter controversy is not the first time the world-renowned author has been accused of being transphobic.

On March 24, 2018, Phaylen Fairchild, a transgender woman who bills herself as an “Author, Actor, Screenwriter, #LGBT Activist” on Twitter, published an article on Medium entitled, “J.K. Rowling: The Blatant Transphobia Of A Beloved Social Justice Hero.”

The evidence provided for Fairchild’s claim was that Rowling had liked a tweet that referred to transgender women as “men in dresses.” A spokesperson for Rowling claimed that the author had accidentally liked the tweet, but another Twitter user found that Rowling had previously liked a Medium article in which its female writer expressed dismay at having to “get changed next to a stranger with a penis.”

Fairchild also referenced a passage from one of Rowling’s books, “The Silkworm,” published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. The passage, in Fairchild’s view, used the threat of sexual violence against a transgender character to “exploit the concepts of Transness to sensationalize or demean us.”

More than a year later, Fairchild published another article on Medium, this one entitled, “JK [sic] Rowling Confirms Stance Against Transgender Women.” The article asserted that “J.K. Rowling is a TERF” because the author had followed Magdalen Berns (since deceased) a lesbian YouTuber whose videos had been called transphobic.

A day after Fairchild’s second article went up, The Mary Sue, a feminist website for “geek girls,” published an article entitled, “J.K. Rowling Leaves Little Doubt About Her TERFdom,” which cited additional evidence to support the claim that the author is transphobic. However, at the time of those articles, Rowling had not publicly made any statement for or against transgender people.

Rowling stands with Forstater

That changed on December 19, 2019, when Rowling tweeted “Dress however you please. Call yourself whatever you like. Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you. Live your best life in peace and security. But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real? #IStandWithMaya #ThisIsNotADrill.”

The #IStandWithMaya hashtag was in support of Maya Forstater. Forstater lost her job with a think tank for tweets that opposed a British law to allow people to self-identify their sex. Forstater filed a lawsuit over her loss of employment but a judge ruled against her, stating that her views lacked “the protected characteristic of philosophical belief.”

With her tweet in December, Rowling set off a heated internet debate. Rowling has called feminism “important and necessary” and has tweeted that she “know[s] and love[s] trans people.” Nonetheless, her insistence that sex is a constant and trans women are not women has put her at odds with many feminists, including some of her fans.

The TERF conflict

The British writer and blogger Viv Smythe is credited with coining the term “TERF” in 2008. Smythe says she is a “cis-het” woman but was made aware of “dehumanizing … trans-hostile rhetoric” and became an activist for transgender rights. Cis-het is short for “cisgender-heterosexual,” a cisgender person is one who identifies with the gender of their birth.

Smythe is an intersectional feminist, which is a form of anti-discrimination advocacy that seeks inclusiveness for all marginalized people and awareness of how different beliefs and group needs intersect.

Like Rowling, feminists who believe that transgender people are defined by their biological sex instead of their self-identified gender often dismiss the term “TERF” as a slur. Many prefer to be called “gender critical” feminists. They believe that biological sex cannot be changed and that opening up female spaces to transgender women is simply opening the door to men.

Biological sex and gender

Like gender critical feminists, it is common in conservative circles to say that sex is a biological constant and therefore cannot be changed. While some critics say transgenderism is actually a mental illness, the American Psychological Association does not classify it as such.

Scientific research on gender identity has found that the topic is nuanced and complicated.

Sex is said to manifest within three categories: genotypic sex (based on a person’s X and/or Y chromosomes), phenotypic sex (based on a person’s genitalia and secondary sexual characteristics) and gender (a person’s “subjective perception of their sex and their sexual orientation.”)

Recent research has found that intersex individuals – people who are born with indistinct genitalia or genitalia that does not match their internal sex organs – could be as common as one in 1,000 births. Additionally, a person can be born with an extra X or Y chromosome.

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