At the weekend a letter was published in the Observer, signed by 130 people, which called for open debate in universities and criticised the silencing or ‘no platforming’ of people whose views are deemed transphobic or whorephobic. Two high-profile signatories, Mary Beard and Peter Tatchell, were immediately deluged with abuse and threats. Both ended up making statements (Beard on her blog, and Tatchell to Pink News) in which they reiterated their support for the principle of free speech, but took pains to distance themselves from the TERFs (‘trans-exclusionary radical feminists’) who are the main targets of the tactics the letter criticised. ‘Don’t confuse me with those people’, was the message. ‘I defend their right to express their views, but I find those views as repulsive as you do’.
Reading these statements, I couldn’t help thinking about the ending of George Orwell’s novel 1984, where Winston pleads with his torturers to do it to his lover Julia, not to him. It’s cowardly, but as a reader you understand it; you recognize that in his position you would probably do the same. In this context it’s a sign of the effectiveness of the McCarthyist tactics deployed by certain trans activists. On Twitter there is a blacklist, called the ‘blockbot’, which includes the names of Twitter users who have been reported for tweeting something that someone considers suspect, along with the reasons for their inclusion. Anyone can inspect the list if they want to know who the TERFs are, and there is nothing to prevent them from passing that information on. If you work in academe, like Mary Beard, or you’re a veteran LGBT activist like Peter Tatchell, you really don’t want to be on that list. The two of them were victims of another classic McCarthyist tactic, guilt by association. And they responded by trying to dissociate themselves, not only from the TERFs who had been no-platformed, but also from any TERFs who may have been lurking among the other signatories to the letter.
Because these tactics have been effective, most people’s knowledge of what the so-called TERFs actually believe is limited or non-existent. That their position is misguided and morally repugnant is pretty much taken for granted: if asked what it actually is, though, almost no one would be able to give an account based on statements made by the TERFs themselves. What gets repeated in public is that the TERFs are simply bigots, attacking a small and oppressed minority out of irrational fear and loathing. They are accused of disputing trans people’s right to exist, and of inciting violence against them.
If that were true, the no-platforming would be justified. But with very few exceptions it is not true. Feminists across the political spectrum support the right of trans people not to be discriminated against at work, harassed or subjected to physical and sexual assault. On the last point, there is a particularly clear intersection between feminist and trans concerns. Radical feminists have long been at the forefront of campaigns opposing male violence and demanding justice for its victims: assaults on trans people, overwhelmingly perpetrated by men, are seen as part of the same problem. There is absolutely no question about whether such attacks should be condemned: they should be and they are.
So, what gets people labelled TERFs is not their opposition to the fundamental rights most trans people care about. Rather it is a form of political dissent: you are labelled a TERF if you question or criticise the bizarre ideology which is currently promoted by some trans activists. I stress the word ‘some’ here, because the activists in question are assiduous and vocal, but they clearly don’t speak for the entire trans community: their critics include people who are trans themselves. If disagreeing with their extreme views makes you a TERF, then frankly, almost everyone is a TERF.