Dec 1, 2021
Content Warning: Transphobia
Art by Toby
Most lesbians are involved with the feminist cause, or at least care about its impacts. Obviously, being a woman and loving other women makes us care about women’s rights. Over time though, I have discovered an unfortunate truth. Some lesbians who on the surface are normal feminists display bitter and violent attacks against trans women, labeling them as men who have “invaded” women’s spaces.
One post I saw on Instagram posed the question: “How do you define women only spaces? Do you think they should exist?” Many of the early comments were benign, talking about how lesbian spaces were important. The ugliness filtered in eventually. I couldn’t stop myself from reading comments bad-mouthing trans women, calling them predators, and going a step further to belittle and attack non-binary people and trans men. I took a look at the profiles that these comments were coming from and never saw a face that looked younger than 30. In their bios, they espoused deep pride in being lesbian, and their profile pictures were endearing to me: grinning grey-haired lesbians wearing plaid. It left me feeling lost. I’d had so many good interactions with these women and their networks. My trans peers wouldn’t have gotten the same positive treatment, and because of this, I felt disturbed. My cisgender privilege was sheltering me from the ugly side of these veteran women’s liberationists.
While the presence of Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) seemed jarring at first, their history is long and storied, especially in queer women’s circles. The first time I heard that term, I hadn’t encountered them before, but it gave me a warning of what was to come. Seeing their rhetoric out in the open is infuriating. The modern rise of TERFdom has been predated by the philosophies of gender essentialism and social constructionism. These terms hold the ideas that people of different sexes have unique characteristics shared across the entire group. A simple summary is a quote such as: “Men are from Mars and women are from Venus.” It proposes that the traits of men and women are inherently different and opposite to each other and it can’t be changed. This thinking was easily translated into the early debates about the validity of trans women, especially in women’s spaces. Because of their perceived connection to masculinity, they were seen as the ultimate threat to feminine power and their place among fellow women was questioned relentlessly. In the queer movements of the later half of the 20th century, they were often treated as tokens, despite all of their work for the community. To this day, they are still relentlessly othered, intentionally or unintentionally.
A high-profile example of trans women being intentionally excluded from a women’s space was at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. Established in 1976 to be an open and safe space for queer women to come together, it thrived for decades and was seen as a cultural fixture. However, in the summer of 1991, a trans woman named Nancy Burkholder was asked to leave. The founder of Michfest, Lisa Vogel, wouldn’t budge, insisting that their policy on transness was “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” and that they would operate under the assumption that everyone was a “womyn born womyn.” In effect, they were creating another gender and class hierarchy. It says a lot that policies in a feminist lesbian space resembled that of the very systems they swore to fight against. “When lesbian feminism starts constraining women instead of liberating them, we have lost our way. This is what the success of years of lesbian visibility activism looks like: new kinds of dykes we haven’t seen before and can’t name yet.” said Riki Wilchins, a trans woman who was also ejected from the festival after her participation in Camp Trans, a protest held across the street from Michfest after the ejection of Burkholder. For years, festival goers and the wider community pleaded with the organizers to change their ways, all to no avail. Despite what Vogel and her allies said, a majority of attendees were always in support of trans people. Following the continued controversy, organizations and musicians dropped their support, such as the Human Rights Campaign and the Indigo Girls.
For decades, a vocal minority of lesbians have caused immeasurable harm to the trans community. In their own twisted pursuit of radical “feminism,” they persecute the people most in danger in today’s society. Since they see trans women as men, they project the trauma they have faced from men onto them, completely ignoring the amount of trans women who are victims themselves. Cis lesbians need to acknowledge what is happening in their spaces and use their privilege to call it out, because transphobia on any level is unacceptable. TERF rhetoric tears apart queer women’s spaces. If we want to expand spaces for queer women, we have to become radically inclusive now.