Since the beginning of 2022, more than 200 laws have been filed in the United States that would seek to restrict the rights of LGBTQ Americans. Of those bills, more than half would specifically target transgender Americans.
In the first week of June alone, the state legislatures of Pennsylvania and Ohio passed bills banning transgender women and girls from participating in women’s sports. If passed, the Ohio bill would allow people to accuse students of being transgender and would require doctors to examine the genitals of accused students.
Some lawmakers have argued that the purpose of these bills is to protect cisgender women and girls from opportunities lost to transgender competitors. While a focus on women’s sports is becoming more common in the United States, the broader ideology of pitting cisgender and transgender women against each other has become commonplace around the world.
In the UK, this debate has received increasing attention in recent years, in part because of a subset of feminists, referred to as radical trans exclusionary feminists (often abbreviated as TERF) or critical gender feminists. The movement gained international notoriety when author JK Rowling voiced it Support for that movement.
Sone Erikainen, a sociologist at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, has studied the movement in the UK and spoke to US News about feminist ideologies of trans exclusion. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sone Erikainen, a sociologist at the University of Aberdeen, studies transgender issues. Sone Erikainen
What are the roots of this ideology in the UK and why do you think it has become increasingly important?
I don’t think there’s a single moment of origin that we can identify with certainty, but some important historical developments include older forms of radical trans exclusionary feminism that have come to the fore particularly in the years 1970, which is when radical feminism matured as a subset. of the wider feminist movement.
In the United Kingdom, the British government’s proposal to reform the Gender Recognition Act 2004, which allows trans people to change their legal sex marker from female to male and vice versa, but the process they have to go through to do so is difficult and cumbersome. The proposed reforms would have, among other things, facilitated the process and enabled trans women and men to self-define or self-identify their gender.
The British government held a consultation about these reforms in 2018, but the effect has been a backlash against trans rights that has been led by gender-sensitive feminist groups and organizations. Now, gender critical ideas and groups had certainly existed before this point, but it was above all the consultation on GRA reform that made these groups in the UK prominent and vocal. At the time of the consultation, there were a large number of new gender-critical organizations that kind of sprung up from the grassroots and they were founded specifically to resist the proposed reforms, and indeed they have successful. The proposed reforms have largely failed to materialize, largely due to campaigning by these groups.
Why do you think trans exclusionary feminism has become so prominent in the UK?
I’m not sure but I have a few ideas. Firstly, it is important to stress that an upsurge in anti-trans sentiment and trans exclusionary social movements and policies is not unique to the UK. Across Europe and beyond, including the United States, we have seen in recent years the emergence and maturation of what are often called ‘anti-gender’ movements that are rooted in visions of religious and especially Christian world, where people are mobilizing against what they call “gender ideology”.
The anti-gender movement hasn’t gained much traction in the UK compared to many other European countries in particular, and a lot of that can be explained by secularism – the UK is comparatively a country very secular where religion is quite separate from politics, which means that ideas based on religious worldviews have a harder time gaining significant political influence here.
The anti-gender movements and the TERF or critical gender movement are different but they share an opposition to the mainstream “gender ideology” and they share the belief that we need biological definitions of sex rather than social definitions of gender. . The anti-gender movement and the critical gender movement are reactionary responses to recent social and legal developments that have resulted in social reforms around gender, including around trans rights, and they oppose these reforms and seek to overthrow them.
The prominence of TERFs in the UK is part of a wider backlash against social and legal reforms across Europe and beyond that tend to define gender, including legally, as a social rather than a biological phenomenon. ; it is a reaction against the social change that is happening at the moment. However, this backlash manifests itself in different ways in different places, and in the UK it has manifested as ‘gender-critical feminism’, while in other places it has is manifested in the form of ‘anti-gender’ movements. The UK also has a long history of strong feminist movements and feminist activism which have been successful in achieving large-scale legal reforms around the notion of ‘women’s rights’, so TERF groups rely on the legacy of this past feminist work when articulating their politics. gender rights for women.
How has this ideology affected the state of feminism and/or LGBTQ movements in the UK?
Overall, the truth is that TERFs and gender-aware feminists are a small minority within British feminism. They do not represent or reflect the views of UK-based feminists as a whole, and most UK-based feminists reject their ideas and arguments as outdated or harmful. This does not mean, however, that they have no influence or impact. The problem is that even though they are a minority, they speak out and their opinions are often picked up by the media, including the mainstream media. Interestingly, TERFs or gender-critical feminists often say they are silenced by what they sometimes call the “trans lobby”. Yet, even though they are indeed a small minority, their views and arguments are supported by many media outlets just as much as, and sometimes more than, the views of feminists and trans activists who identify as trans, and their Arguments have also had a great impact on policy decisions, particularly with regard to the proposed reforms of the GRA.
One of the effects of this is to generate a political climate of fear for trans people, which adds another layer to the general inequalities and marginalization that trans people already face, both in the UK and beyond. The direct impact these groups have on political decision-making means that trans people face barriers to realizing more equitable legal rights and recognition.
Do you think this ideology will continue to spread and gain influence in countries other than the UK?
I don’t see it dissipating anytime soon as it is a reactionary response against recent and ongoing social changes. The increase in rights and recognition for trans people is one of the most obvious manifestations of broader social changes in how gender is understood and experienced today. Gender has been uprooted from biology and is increasingly understood as a social phenomenon and a matter of individual identity. Trans and non-binary people are, for many, the symbol of this, whether as a positive symbol for the empowerment of social change or as a symbol of the perils of “gender ideology”.
The problem is that often significant social changes also occur [with] resistance to this change, as some people seek to restore what they feel they have lost. The biggest problem I have with this is that at the same time that trans and non-binary people have become a symbol of “gender wars” or what are sometimes called “culture wars”, life real trans people is lost or sidelined in these “wars”. Real trans people, rather than token people, continue to face significant social disadvantage, marginalization and discrimination.
What is the typical demographic of people who express this ideology? Are they generally LGBTQ or cisgender and/or heterosexual?
I don’t know if anyone has even comprehensively mapped the demographics, and if anyone has, then I’m unaware of that work, and would like to avoid speculating too much about it. However, I will say that most of the prominent voices of self-proclaimed “gender-critical feminists” belong to white cis (gender) women, and it is the voices of white cis (gender) women that mostly circulate on social media platforms like Twitter, which has become an important way for people who support TERF or critical gender ideas to share their views with each other and organize politically.
That these voices are overwhelmingly white shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to anyone with a bit of feminist history – indeed, while many white feminists have historically argued that “women” as a group face some kind of shared oppression under patriarchy that is based on their common status as women in particular, black feminists and feminists of color have long emphasized that “women” are not a homogenous group but rather a diverse group , and that different women face discrimination in different ways based on other social characteristics like race. I will also say that the dominant voices belong to women who identify as heterosexual or lesbian, in particular.