TERF WARS – ARE WE REPEATING FEMINIST HISTORIES?
Jennifer Earles, Frostburg State University
Inclusivity may be the mantra of many fourth-wave feminists when it comes to trans women’s voices and experiences; however, when TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) sentiments started showing up online, these practices have been said to produce “…the most bitter battle in the LGBT movement today” (Wente 2014).
But, these TERF wars are nothing new and certainly represent some deep-seated ideas about gender, sex, and bodies within mainstream feminism. Even before the invention of social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr, radical and lesbian feminists practiced exclusion within communities designed for “womyn-born women” or “women who were born as women, who have lived their entire experience as women, and who identify as women” (Vogel 2014).
And, those women who practiced lesbian separatism or the everyday, deliberate disconnection by women from men and from male-dominated institutions, relationships, and activities (Frye 1983), often flocked to rural areas in Alabama, Florida, and other states where land was abundant. These communities became a way for lesbians and radical feminists to find each other and mobilize in spaces where they were often unwelcomed.
But, as radical-identified feminists work toward recognition, agency, and the preservation of lesbian spaces, how do members differently determine gender for insiders and outsiders in order to preserve a particular kind of feminism? These exclusionary practices certainly have implications for trans inclusion, but also for how feminists hold tight to the logic of a gender binary and public narratives about essentialism, biology, and heterosexuality.
A Sociologist Out of Water…
As a trained sociologist, I am often confronted with my discipline’s reluctance to delve into the past. Much of our research is about the present with little indication of how current meanings and practices stem from historical ones. But, as feminists continue to fight over the same issues again and again, I would argue that it is our obligation to see how these exclusionary sentiments developed over time. After all, this knowledge could produce some insight as to how we can move forward.
Indeed, both lesbians and trans women can experience contradictory embodiment by attempting to live as either straight or as a man – to remain invisible under heteronormativity. But, by seeking memberships in communities, cisgender lesbians and trans women are trying to gain recognition of their identities and bodies in whatever terms are possible for that particular time and space (Connell 2009).
In this way, doing gender or finding other lesbians or trans women becomes more about historical and social solidarity and organizing than individual identity. But, feminist communities also do the work of figuring out how to determine gender for insiders and outsiders (Westbrook and Schilt 2014). And, while both cis lesbians and trans women struggle against invisibility and contradictory embodiment, feminist literature reveals the troubled relationship between radical feminism and trans women (Connell 2012).
With that, I headed to my university’s archives to see what I could find out about a local feminist separatist community that thrived for over 20 years. How did they last as long as they did? And, why did they eventually dismantle? The answer lies in their notions about gendered bodies and some members’ fervent refusal to admit trans women into the community.
With that in mind, my research is based on the printed newsletters collectively written by self-identified radical feminists in Florida (dates 05/1983 to 04/2013: 3,554 pages). In 1982, they began meeting monthly in what they called Salons, named after the cultural and intellectual collectives of Revolutionary France.
Within the first year, Salon feminists formed the collective, Women’s Energy Bank (WEB), and began publishing their newsletter, Womyn’s Words. Over the years, the women grew together to incorporate consensus decision-making, nonviolent conflict resolution, and feminist practices and activism. They held Salon programs about coming and being out, body image, fat oppression, ageism, sexism, racism, classism, heterosexism, journal writing and even financial planning, technical skills, substance, addiction, relationship challenges, health, art, history, and BDSM (bondage, dominance/submission, sadomasochism). Together, they endeavored to create a special place just for lesbians.
At its height, the mailing list was over 250 subscribers, designed specifically for “womyn-born women.” And, if patriarchy was the problem, then separatism was the answer as lesbians laid claim to physical and textual spaces in forging networks of political and cultural resistance.
“The Penis Police”: Employing Biology-Based Determinations in Lesbian Spaces
Salon feminists developed a woman-centered space and agentic embodiment by rewriting “herstory” to include figures like Sappho and images of powerful Goddesses. However, like all gender-segregated spaces, women-only spaces rest on and reproduce an idea of a gender binary (Lorber 1993).
Through Womyn’s Words, Salon feminists organized their local feminist activities by nominating an official “penis police” to ensure no images of men appeared in the newsletter. Even before trans women attempted to enter this space, biology-based criteria for membership perpetuated ideas about who was a woman and the kind of feminism that centered on bodies and power.
While this helped cis lesbians recognize one another, it also drew seemingly impermeable boundaries around this space and locally reproduced those ideological codes that influenced how members talked about their encounters with perceived outsiders.
To be sure, these membership criteria were based on both actual and imagined scenarios about women’s experiences in public spaces. Women are much more likely to experience sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking, and sexual harassment by men than the other way around (May et al. 2010). Fear in public spaces negatively impacts women’s lives and, even when the danger is low, the manifestation of gender in everyday life puts women on edge.
I do not take this lightly. It is, after all, why women are expected to adhere to gendered expectation that restrict their public interactions and why feminist mobilization strategies and spaces are important. But, by connecting feminists’ use of imagined scenarios with how they determine gender, we can see how some members essentially conflate the identities and bodies of cis men and trans women to exclude.
For instance, in a Womyn’s Words article that made the case for women-only spaces, one member recounted her experiences with an “aggressive” and “violent” man at a women’s cultural event. She wrote, “[T]he violence… emanates from his prick… I am using the word ‘prick’ not as an ‘obscenity’… but to emphasize the fact that his violence stems from his maleness, not from anywhere else” – M. (WEB September 1987).
Indeed, narratives about women’s vulnerability as “men rape, attack, kill womyn everyday…” seemed to prompt the need for “womyn [to] stop them” before they “annihilate us all” – M. (WEB September 1987). In this case, penises and, subsequently males assigned at birth in general, were seen as a constant threat to women. This idea also reinforces the construction of heterosexual male desire as uncontrollable and dangerous.
However, in the end, what people are protecting is not just women, but the public narratives about essentialism and heterosexuality and the logic of binary genders.
Ideological Collisions: Developing Gender Policies in Feminist Spaces
In February 2002, a headline appeared in Womyn’s Words: “Everything About Gender You Always Wanted to Know: But Didn’t Even Know How To Ask.” What was supposed to be a regular monthly forum with trans women signaled the beginning of the end for Salon. One member wrote:
For the past five of six Salons, Salon has not provided a “womyn only space”… Womyn, Lesbians, in particular, are feeling threatened in their own private, sacred space. Why? Because M 2 F Trans are attending Salon. . . . We are womyn. . . Yet we are being forced to capitulate in our own space, to the patriarchy! Trans who were born men are once again asking womyn to accept them . . . to nurture them . . . to take them in . . . to socialize . . . to listen to their problems. . . .Womyn born womyn do not have much in common with M 2 F trans. We cannot possibly share the same herstories. We cannot possibly share the terrors of servitude, ownership, and rape with trans who were born men. We cannot share the pain and joy of childbirth and motherhood. A male birth and upbringing, experiences, thought processes, hair, skin and egos are NOT ours and can never be ours! – C.L. (WEB April 2002).
While some questioned how some determined gender through bodies, other Salon feminists’ fear of invisibility in the local space amplified notions of biology and socialization so that all people who were assigned male at birth were suspect. Stories became embedded with meanings about biology and identity to inform feelings of ownership over this space. As a result, some used perceived genitalia and imagined situations to shore up the boundaries of this feminist community. This created a moment of ideological collision and gender panic.
For C.L. (above) and others, asserting women’s weakness in the face of heterosexuality was an attempt to re-establish boundaries. While these imagined scenarios worked to separate insiders from outsiders, it also seemed to unravel members’ work in re-writing a herstory of the strong and powerful lesbian. Salon feminists relied on narratives about how men were helpless in their socialization to commit violence and about how women were also just as helpless to nurture. Likewise, trans women were at the mercy of recognition by cis women.
As another member wrote, “Why not limit our membership at all?… We could feature a new group of people every month – recently released male parolees, for instance. They need support… Or, how about drug addicts?” – C.B. (WEB April 2002). If segregation depends on the binary separation of bodies, then women-only spaces also rest on the assumption of difference based on capabilities and interests or the connection between “egos” or personalities and “hair” and “skin” or physicalities. During times of gender panic, men become uniquely terrifying. And by rejecting trans women’s gender claims, Salon feminists not only claimed that “Trans are not Lesbians” – H. (WEB May 2002), but as heterosexual cis “men in dresses” (J., WEB May 2002) who are seeking membership for nefarious purposes.
The Un-unravelable Thread: Embedded Spaces and Feminist Negotiations
Given the embeddedness of perceived biology and identity in the newsletter and it is the overarching narrative’s dependence on opposition in achieving recognition and embodiment, this community was ultimately unsustainable under the changing ideas about feminism and inclusivity.
Members continued to collide in how they determined gender and in how trans women did or did not fit into the community. In November 2002, a Salon featuring trans women was cancelled due to divisiveness within WEB. A few months later, one member wrote, “…I cannot, in good conscious, continue to ask [trans women] to make that lonely walk to the womyn-born women only drinking fountain” (WEB January 2003).
After that, Salon meetings became less and less frequent until a few years later, in 2006, feminists stopped meeting all together. After that, Womyn’s Words became more about the broader LGBT community. The newsletter was published until 2013.
By relying on the logic of a binary and the public narratives of gender, essentialism, and heterosexuality, feminists uphold the sex/gender/(hetero)sexuality system by disseminating those ideological codes that paint women as vulnerable and men as predatory.
And, as we move from rural to online spaces, feminists continue to play the part of the “penis police” using imagined scenarios in order to exclude trans women and potential feminist allies. This is important for situating the body in any sociological analysis. As gender, essentialism, and heterosexuality continue to inform how these spaces are constructed, it is no wonder that trans-women’s membership is problematic.