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What Exactly Is a TERF?

JK Roling gives a sort of smug smile on the red carpet for secrets of dumbledore

Transphobes know how repugnant their ideology is, which is why they try very hard to mask it with more palatable labels. One strategy that some transphobes use is claiming their bigotry is a type of feminism, and this strategy has given rise to the word “TERF,” or Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist. If you’ve heard the word TERF tossed around but you’re not sure what it means, here’s a quick guide.

TERFs, explained

The term TERF was first recorded in 2008 to describe self-identified feminists who were transphobic. In short, TERF refers to transphobes who mask their hatred under the guise of women’s rights. For example, in 2020, J. K. Rowling claimed in a series of tweets that the phrase “people who menstruate” was harming cis women by “erasing the concept of sex.” Rowling couldn’t explain how exactly cis women’s lived experiences were erased by the phrase—because the point of her statement wasn’t to support women’s rights, but to disguise her hatred as feminism.

TERFs believe that only people who are assigned female at birth should “count” as women. This belief leads to support for policies that harm both trans people and cis people, like barring trans women from women’s bathrooms and forcing all female athletes to submit to invasive tests before they compete.

Because TERFs see the term TERF as a slur, they’ll disguise their ideas under other labels like “gender critical,” or identify as members of the “LGB Community,” dropping the T that stands for “trans.” They’ll also claim that they’re against “rapists,” “groomers,” and “pedophiles,” when they’re really trying to falsely attach those labels to trans women.

Although TERFs claim to be feminists, there has been overwhelming evidence over the years linking them to right-wing, white supremacist, and antisemitic groups. Plus, there’s a direct line between the anti-trans language used by TERFs and the lethal violence committed against trans people, especially trans women of color.

TERFs versus transphobes

Many TERFs will claim that they’re not transphobic—they simply don’t believe that trans women are “real” women. However, it’s vital to understand that TERFism is a subset of transphobia that disguises itself as feminism. Not all transphobes are TERFs, but all TERFs are transphobes.

Why are TERFs wrong?

TERFs and other transphobes are frightened by the idea that biology is more complicated than two mutually exclusive, strictly defined genders. As feminist scholars have pointed out for generations, the gender binary has to be violently enforced, again and again, in order to hold—and it’s exactly that binary that TERFs are fighting to maintain. The ultimate goal of TERFs is to eradicate an entire class of people and calcify gender into rigid, aggressively policed roles for everyone else.

When we recognize gender as expansive and fluid, everyone—trans, cis, nonbinary, and beyond—has the freedom to explore their gender expression and live as their most authentic selves. This is the joyful, complex, affirming world that TERFs fear, which is why it’s up to the rest of us to shut their hate movement down now.

(featured image: Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images)

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Julia Glassman (she/her) holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and covers film, television, and books for The Mary Sue. When she's not making yarn on her spinning wheel, she consumes massive amounts of Marvel media, folk horror, science fiction, fantasy, and nature writing. You can check out more of her writing at, or find her on Twitter at @juliaglassman.