Why TERFs don’t talk about trans men (and why cis men don’t either)

I quite often see discussions about why trans exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) tend to discuss most of their vitriol towards trans women, and largely ignore trans men. Sometimes, this is presented as a sign that trans men are better socially accepted than trans women. Personally, I don’t think that’s the answer, and at some level, it’s fundamentally a response to entirely the wrong question.

TERFs are described specifically in terms of their focus on exclusion. They are fundamentally focused upon keeping people out. What are TERFs trying to keep people out of? What is the turf they are defending (bad pun, I know)? It’s their notion of womanhood, against those women who they think don’t belong. And that’s your answer to why they aren’t talking about trans men. They don’t need to defend their vision of womanhood against trans men, because according to them the situation is either (a) trans men are in their category of woman, like it or not, on the basis of our presumed chromosomes/presumed reproductive capacity (but we fail to recognis this due to being  poor, deluded, vulnerable fools, misled by modern medicine, or autism, or Tumblr, or Skeletor, or whatever their preferred villain of the week is) or (b) we’ve voluntarily ducked out of the fight, so we’re wusses or traitors, and they can turn their backs against us. Either way, we aren’t encroaching on their turf, we’re trying to escape it. Hence no effort is needed to exclude us. Some TERFs do make an attempt to coercively fence us in, but for the most part they’re more interested in doing that for those who they see as vulnerable and salvageable – kids – than worrying about what us dyed-in-the-wool sell-outs might be up to. Plus deep down, I suspect a lot of TERFs come from a place where they can sympathise with the fundamental desire to escape womanhood, even if they think we’re going about it all wrong.

So the real question with regard to trans men isn’t why TERFs aren’t talking about us, it’s why there isn’t a comparable movement of cis men rallying round to say that trans men aren’t men. Except that isn’t a question, because we all know why. Cis men with an exclusionary attitude don’t see trans men as any kind of a threat to their turf, because no cis-penis. That’s it. They don’t see a need to dress that up with theory, or discussing social constructs, or stuff about innate essences, or socialisation, or selectively-curated research papers, or anything else. Transphobic cis men might mock trans men, or be disgusted by us, or threaten us, but they don’t see any need to waste time arguing with us, let alone bother defending their borders against us. And you can’t spin: “You haven’t got [what I consider to be] a willy” out into a Sunday broadsheet editorial, even if you write it in really big letters.

As trans people who are feminists, I think we’re often particularly outraged by the TERFs, because we feel that they should get it. They’ve thought about gender. Some of them get paid to write about this stuff. And yes, what they write is often dismissive and cruel and harmful, and they should know better. But that doesn’t give transphobic cis men a free pass, just because they can’t even be arsed to try to explain their logic for dismissing trans people, or haven’t thought about it beyond “willies”.

Patrick Califia nailed this years ago. The general social attitude is: Of course women want to be men. And of course they never can be. But that’s not acceptance of trans men, it’s – at best – a pitying glance. And it’s an intersection between misogyny and transphobia. It may well frequently be a less aggressively policed one than transmisogyny, but it’s certainly not acceptance of trans men’s identities as real and valid. I don’t think this particular intersection has been well-mapped out yet, and perhaps at some stage I’ll have a better stab at it. But for the moment, I’d like to point out it’s there.


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