It has been almost two and a half years now since I came out as transgender, and another two years again since I started reading up on trans issues, and in all of this time, I have never once encountered– or even read about– a single, intellectually honest, trans-exclusionary radical feminist (TERF).
Now, when I speak about TERFs, understand that I am not saying that they are the only, or even the worst, transmisogynists out there. They are, as a rule, not liable to personally beat you up like the thoughtless, rank-and-file knuckledraggers in every day life, nor do they enjoy the political clout of religious fundamentalists–but these groups are at least ideologically consistent. The fundamentalists, despite everything, generally roll their attacks on transgenderism up into the same bundle that they use to attack all aspects of modernity: Why do they hate us? Because some preacher said that the Bible said to. Why do they trust the preacher? Because the preacher said that the Bible said to. I’m not going to say that I respect this line of thinking, but it’s conveniently free of loose ends. And the garden-variety douchebags, for their part, have obviously never thought deeply enough about the subject to be capable of guile. But the TERFs stand proud and apart, first of all for the sheer nastiness of their arguments, and for the fact that, even on their own terms, they make not one bloody lick of sense.
To put it charitably, the TERFs are a bunch of purposefully obtuse, hypocritical, goalpost-moving, Gish-galloping, straw man-building hatemongers. The absolute best that you can expect out of one is a gibbering torrent of slurs; the more sophisticated, however, will betray every principle that they claim to possess and misrepresent any argument that they hear, in order to attack you.
They will tell traditionally feminine trans women that they are part of a patriarchal conspiracy to “reify the gender binary” in the exact same breath that they will tell a non-traditionally feminine trans woman that she is an evil rapist trying to infiltrate women’s spaces. They will claim that biology is not destiny, and that gender is a social construct, and then in the same breath, they will demand that everyone be coercively forced into lifelong categories based exclusively on the shape of their genitals at birth. They will hold up maleness and femaleness as if they were irrefutable, rock-hard scientific facts, and then, presented with scientific evidence that the gender binary doesn’t exist, will spin on a dime and claim that science is a patriarchal construct that is not to be trusted. A trans woman will suggest that constantly depicting trans women in the media as being inherently disgusting, inherently shameful sex partners has an effect on the aggregate sexual preferences of heterosexual men and lesbians, and TERFs will somehow contort this into meaning that THIS MAN IS TRYING TO FORCE YOU TO HAVE SEX WITH HIM!!!1!11! And, above all, they will claim to be opposed to patriarchy, but then gleefully jump into bed with people like Jesse Helms at the chance to screw over trans women.
Long before I ever transitioned, I was involved in the skeptic movement; I would get into fights with creationists, climate change deniers, and anti-vaxxers, so I figured that I was more or less prepared for anything that the TERFs could throw at me. But what I hadn’t counted on was that there is quite a major difference between engaging cranks on relatively abstract (though important) scientific matters, and engaging cranks on the matters which are critical to the nature of your existence. You can walk away from the former; but that latter will hound you to death like the blood-soaked Furies of Old.
I have come to two conclusions about them; the first is that engaging them directly is useless. You will not change their mind; you will only manage to ruin your own mental health, and, if you are particularly unlucky, lose your temper and something unkind which will immediately be copypasted throughout the TERF blogosphere as proof that you, and by extension all trans women, are “violent men.”
The second conclusion is that their ideas is so toxic that it cannot be safely ignored either.
So what can be done? Isolate them. Teach disinterested parties to recognize their logical errors. Teach more mainstream feminists to recognize that TERF ideology is but a thin veneer meant to mask a simple, underlying bigotry. And then, most critically, make that bigotry socially unacceptable.