TERF wars

Charlie O’Grady support the banning of TERFs from the Queer Collaborations conference.

Trans-exclusionary radical feminists, or TERFs, were banned at this year’s Queer Collaborations conference at Melbourne’s Monash University. Through two motions passed quickly and without ceremony on the conference floor, a blanket ban was issued against all TERFs attending future QC events. A Brisbane queer officer who is alleged to have made transphobic comments during the conference was also banned.

TERFs are those self-identified radical feminists who believe that trans people reinforce and reify the gender binary, and that trans women are merely effeminate men, whom they frequently frame in a predatory manner. Their view of gender, based in essentialism, invisibilises trans people and, in particular, labels trans women as “not real women”.

This ban goes beyond the establishment of autonomous spaces, or safe spaces for particular groups within the queer community – for example, non-cisgender males. Talk of the exclusion of a group of people from a safe space to which they have a right is highly controversial. And indeed, a blanket ban prevents those queer women who hold these views from accessing a space such as QC which allows them to discuss oppression they themselves face – as well as barring any potential for learning to occur. The prevailing view seems to be that offenders should be banned after they have actually engaged in hate speech or violent actions.

Beyond the question of whether or not TERFs attend queer events to learn and allow their views to be changed, their politics operate in a way that is not only oppressive but, on numerous occasions, has led to the actual violation of trans women. Whilst not all TERFs support such extremist action, and it would be unfair to claim so, the presence of TERFs in queer spaces, in which trans people, too, desire safety, makes those spaces unsafe. The fact that someone may not have acted in an overtly violent manner toward a group of people does not mean they are not or could not be dangerous. In not taking action against the damaging idea inherent in TERF philosophy that trans women are “not really women”, and are somehow lesser, we implicitly send the message that we are comfortable with this notion being perpetuated.

QC’s Safer Spaces Agreement contains the following: “A space should be inclusive of every individual where possible, but, if certain individuals are making the conference unsafe, they are making it less inclusive for others. If you feel that you cannot adhere to the Safer Spaces Policy you should exclude yourself from conference.” In entering a safe space, one enters with an understanding of the condition that, if you infringe on the safety of others, if you tell someone within that space that they are less of a person than you, you will be denied your right to the safety of that space.

This ban should not necessarily be viewed as directed at the individuals in question, but rather at the ideas expressed in trans-exclusionary feminism. The politics of trans-exclusion are not in keeping with the tenets of queer politics. Increasingly, the locus of queer thought centres itself around intersections, and the foregrounding of issues and identities that have previously not been acknowledged. The acknowledgement, and even celebration, of difference is important, but difference becomes a tool of unity rather than division. For example, a cisgender woman and a trans woman have different needs in queer spaces due to their experiencing different kinds of oppression – but neither is “more” or “less” of a woman.

TERFs will frequently claim that trans issues get more, or “too much” air time in LGBT+ politics. This has nothing to do with prioritising identities, or playing Oppression Olympics, and everything to do with making sure that queer spaces are as safe as they can be for the largest amount of people. There is no room for this kind of thinking in queer spaces any more. There is no room for this kind of thinking, period. Not all opinions are equal, and the view that trans people are lesser, or “faking it” – a view that is the seed of so much transphobic and transmisogynist violence –has no value in discussing queer politics.