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Special Issue “Varieties of TERFness”

To be published in open access in 2023 in DiGest. Journal of Diversity and Gender Studies

Edited by

  • Mauro CABRAL GRINSPAN (Université libre de Bruxelles)
  • Ilana ELOIT (Université de Lausanne)
  • David PATERNOTTE (Université libre de Bruxelles)
  • Mieke VERLOO (Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen)

The acronym TERF, which stands for Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist, has become part of public debates in the last years. Yet, this term remains highly contested among scholars and activists. While the term permits to label and to describe a social and intellectual phenomenon which is currently acquiring increasing social and political relevance, there are problems with the term too. To name just two: it can be seen as a “misogynistic slur” (Pearce, Erikainen, Vincent 2020), and has a problematic understanding of what is “radical feminism”. For all its problems, and maybe also because of them, we see it as a useful heuristic tool to understand past and contemporary exclusionary patterns within feminist discourses and practices, and to complexify genealogies of radical feminism.

In this special issue, we argue that the unicity of the term conceals the diversity of positions included under this label and we aim to unpack its complex and entangled meanings as well as to map the diffusion of its way of reasoning across a multitude of actors. In particular, the salience of British and US debates on trans rights, combined with the hegemony of Anglo-American scholarship within gender studies, overshadows the variety of trajectories leading some feminists to adopt anti-trans positions. Actually, a first comparative look at contemporary debates allows us to identify at least three different roads to TERFness: anti-gender activism, radical feminism and radical lesbianism, and institutional feminism.

If anti-gender activism (Kuhar and Paternotte 2017) is generally regarded as a form of anti-feminism, it often presents its rejection of gender as a defence of “real women”. At the heart is a fundamentally essentialist reading of sex, rendering any analysis or action in terms of gender as expressions of so-called “gender ideology”. In line with Pope Jean-Paul II’s “new feminism”, it echoes some viewpoints in difference feminism like the importance of sex difference, heterosexuality and its idea of complementarity between biological sexes, and the centrality of motherhood in defining women. More recently, anti-gender activists have used a women’s rights language to combat surrogacy, pornography, prostitution or chemical contraception. Logically, they see trans rights as a major vehicle of “gender ideology”. In these debates, it is arguable that TERFness contributes to blurring (and interrogating) the seemingly clear division between “feminism” and “anti-feminism”, and therefore calls for renewed critical investigations into the marriage of convenience between feminism and reactionary forces.

A very specific understanding of radical feminism - and radical lesbianism in particular - is probably the best-known road to TERFness, with key authors like Janice Raymond (1979) and Sheila Jeffreys (1997, 2014). Often identifying themselves as political lesbians, these women see transsexuality and transgender identities as a vehicle of patriarchy based on the reinforcement of gender stereotypes, and a strategy to combat lesbianism. What exactly is seen as problematic in terms of feminism differs for how they see trans women and trans men. Mostly worried about trans women, they see them as a threat for women-only spaces and activism. When considering trans men, the worries seem to be more about adolescent girls being misled by social media and peer pressure into “untrue” gender dysphoria. More recently, they have been combatting queer theory as an attempt to erase women and a neoliberal instrument against feminism.

The paradox here is that radical feminism and lesbianism are constructionist (i.e. anti-essentialist) theories for which sexual difference is seen as a marker of patriarchal and heterosexual oppression (Delphy 1991, Dworkin 1974, Wittig 1992). However, TERF discourses reinstate biological sexual difference as the common basis for women’s subjectivity and feminist activism. How can this return to a biological understanding of womanhood by radical feminists/lesbians be explained? Investigating some of the paradoxes within radical feminist/lesbian theories, it also seems important to contest the idea according to which these theoretical currents would necessarily be anti-trans and to provide new and “reparative” readings of this scholarship from a trans-inclusive perspective (see for example Tudor 2019; Williams 2016). Indeed, transphobia is not consubstantial to radical feminism (see for example Stoltenberg 2020 on Dworkin and Williams 2015 on MacKinnon): it seems like the latter has rather been appropriated and monolithically reclaimed by anti-trans radical feminists.

Institutional feminism, understood as a reformist approach to change laws and policies through collaborations with state institutions, appears as another road to TERFness. This is clear in Spain - where feminists close to the Socialist Party currently mobilise against the Trans Bill proposed by the Equality Minister (Miyares 2021, Valcárcel 2019) - but this trend can also be observed within various European institutions and NGOs. At the heart of this road to TERFness is a longstanding conflation between sex and gender in institutional feminism, where gender at times even does not mean anything except sex. Equating “gender” with “women”, these feminists increasingly understand the former as a risk for women’s rights, especially in the current context of backlash. They disagree on the interpretation of gender in official documents like the Beijing Platform for Action or the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, and sometimes argue for abandoning the term “gender” in favour of a return to “women”. In French-speaking and Hispanic countries, their arguments also echo debates on parity democracy, especially when naturalistic foundations were given to the claim that women should not be regarded as a social group or a minority because they are half of humanity.

Addressing these different forms and foundations, this special issue first aims to unpack, highlight and describe varieties of TERFness, and to understand the theoretical and ideological underpinnings of these positions as well as their empirical manifestations. It also aims at conceptualizing TERFness, in order to develop a useful analytical tool for feminist analysis. Instead of amalgamating them under the all-encompassing label of TERF, this approach ambitions to distinguish between different discourses and strategies to better understand when and how they overlap and/or echo each other. It also wants to investigate new collaborations and coalitions among actresses who may have been opposed or in competition in the past. At the same time, it is absolutely clear that only some feminists embarked in one of these trajectories have adopted TERF positions (Stryker and Bettcher 2016). Secondly therefore, this special issue will also attempt to explain why certain feminists with a specific trajectory are sensitive to these arguments while others with the same background are not. Thirdly, the feminist debate on trans issues is not new (Green 2006, Kubala 2020), as illustrated by the Raymond-Stone controversy in the 1970s and 1980s. Therefore, it is crucial to explore historical legacies that can shed light on why this debate has suddenly become so salient and central.

To answer this last question, we assume that, even though it has played an important part, the higher visibility of trans activism does not suffice to explain the current situation. Rather, we suggest that a deeper exploration of the theoretical and discursive foundations, empirical configurations, and material resources (money, coalitions, networks) of TERFness is needed. Indeed, far from a side issue, the trans debate is likely to weigh on feminism and gender studies for a long time because it intersects with older debates and plays them again:

  • Gender as a concept and a theory has never been unanimously accepted and, most importantly, has always been understood in extremely different ways. These divergences become crucial at a time when gender is attacked by actors located outside of feminism and gender studies, especially to distinguish between enemies and disagreements among friends. They also shed a new light on the status of sex and the role of biology in defining women (Hines 2019, 2020). Furthermore, while anti-trans feminism has been accompanied by the emergence of new expressions such as “gender-critical feminism” and “transgenderism”, on the other hand, some feminists have recently started using the term “FART” which stands for Feminism-Appropriating Reactionary Transphobe (instead of TERFs). This new vocabulary highlights the ways in which symbolic struggles around the definition of gender and feminism structure these debates.
  • Trans claims and activism raise the fundamental question of what makes a woman and who counts as a woman. Therefore, “trans-inclusive discourses” are often opposed to allegedly preserve the unity of women and to maintain a unitary subject for feminism (Watson 2016, Williams 2020). For the same reason, these actresses generally think that gender relations transcend all other social relations and deserve a specific analytical and political status. This leads some of them to reject the concept of intersectionality and to fear that a stronger emphasis on diversity among women and in society will undermine gender equality.
  • TERFness is often expressed through a specific range of affects such as fear, anger, or hatred against trans people, creating a new reality: one in which anti-trans feminists would be fighting against an existential threat to feminism and its subject “women”. Similar affects have long been used to oppose minoritarian voices within feminism seeking to address relationships of power (in terms of class, race or sexuality) among feminists. Affects can also be a useful entry point to study feminist affective investments into the subject “women” despite theoretical deconstructions of the sexual binary.
  • These debates play again the 1980s feminist sex wars, which opposed, mostly in the US, “anti-pornography” feminists to “pro-sex” feminists and in which the former argued that sexuality was intrinsically oppressive for women. With TERFs often opposing (any form of) prostitution, pornography or surrogacy and denying that these are implacably divisive issues within feminism, the trans debate raises again the divisive issue of sexuality, reformulates theoretical battles on the articulation between gender and sexuality, and interrogates the meanings of self-autonomy and self-determination.


For this special issue, we welcome pieces investigating TERFness in four areas: discourses and arguments, actors and networks, implications for feminist theory and the role of affects (Hemmings 2021). We expect authors to address a key theoretical question in relation to the variety of TERFness on the basis of new empirical data, and to examine trans debates in different geographical locations. Articles thus have to be based on sound literature review and clear theoretical conceptualization, empirical material and adequate methods of analysis.

Technical information about format and submission.


We expect final papers to be between 7000 and 8000 words (bibliography and footnotes included), submitted in Word format.

References in APA Style, 7th edition.


The Editors

Mauro Cabral Grispan has more than 20 years of experience in the field of trans and
intersex advocacy ; he co-founded GATE in 2009 and served as its Executive
Director for five years. Cabral Grinspan participated in the elaboration of the Yogyakarta Principles and the Yogyakarta Principles+10, being a signatory of both documents. He holds a Degree in History by the Universidad Nacional of Córdoba (Argentina), and had
continued postgraduate studies in the fields of philosophy and public policy. 

Ilana Eloit is lecturer in Gender Studies at the University of Lausanne. She holds a PhD from the LSE Department of Gender Studies. Her research focuses on the intellectual history of lesbian theory, on the theoretical and epistemological (dis)articulations between feminism and lesbianism, and on the politics of the feminist archive. She has edited with Clare Hemmings the special issue “Haunting Feminism: Encounter with Lesbian Ghosts” published in Feminist Theory (2019).

David Paternotte is associate professor in Sociology and Gender Studies at the Université libre de Bruxelles. After years of research on same-sex marriage, lesbian and gay activism as well as feminism, he has worked since 2013 on anti-gender movements. With Roman Kuhar, he has coedited the edited volume Anti-Gender Campaigns in Europe: Mobilizing against Equality in 2017. He is currently working on academic freedom and right-wing politics of knowledge.

Mieke Verloo is Professor of Comparative Politics and Inequality Issues at Radboud University in the Netherlands, and Non-Residential Permanent Fellow at the IWM, Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. Her older work has been on gender equality policymaking and intersectionality in Europe. More recent work is on opposition to feminist politics (Verloo 2018, Verloo and Paternotte 2018). Her current work is on the complex relationship between de-democratization and gender+ equality, and on gendered body politics (Verloo and van der Vleuten 2020).


Delphy, Christine (1991) “Penser le genre: quels problèmes ?”, in Marie-Claude Hurtig, Michèle Kail, Hélène Rouch (eds), Sexe et genre : de la hiérarchie entre les sexes, Paris, Presses du CNRS.

Dworkin, Andrea (1974) Woman Hating, New York, Plume.

Green, Eli R. (2006) “Debating Trans Inclusion in the Feminist Movement”, Journal of Lesbian Studies, 10/1-2, p. 231-248.

Hemmings, Clare (2021) “Unnatural feelings. The affective life of ‘anti-gender’ mobilisations”, Radical Philosophy, 2/9, p. 27-39.

Hines, Sally (2019) “The feminist frontier: on trans and feminist”, Journal of Gender Studies, 28/2, p. 145-157.

Hines, Sally (2020) “Sex wars and (trans) gender panics: identity and body politics in contemporary UK feminism”, Sociological Review, 68/4, p. 699-717.

Jeffreys, Sheila (1997) “Transgender Activism: A Lesbian Feminist”, Journal of Lesbian Studies, 1/3-4, p. 55-74.  

Jeffreys, Sheila (2014) Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism, New York, Routledge.

Kubala, Julie (2020), “Teaching ‘Bad Feminism’: Mary Daly and the Legacy of ‘70s Lesbian Feminism”, Feminist Formations, 32/1, p. 117-136.

Kuhar, Roman, David Paternotte (eds) (2017) Anti-Gender Campaigns in Europe: Mobilizing Against Equality, London, Rowman & Littlefield International.

Miyares, Alicia (2021) Distopías patriarcales: Análisis feminista del “generismo Queer”, Barcelona, Catedra.

Pearce, Ruth, Sonja Erikainen, Ben Vincent (2020) “TERF wars: An introduction”, Sociological Review, 68/4, 677-698.

Raymond, Janice (1979) The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, Boston, Beacon Press.

Stoltenberg, John (2020) “Andrea Dworking was a Trans Ally”, Boston Review,