As the anti-trans political agenda picks up momentum with a slew of state bills targeting individuals over gender identity, so too has the public’s appetite for transphobic propaganda. Talking heads as prominent as Tucker Carlson have taken to regularly attacking those who seek or support gender-affirming care, while right-wing ideologues of the internet have looked to capitalize on the wave of hate: podcaster Matt Walsh of the Daily Wire is bringing out a “documentary” clearly meant to dehumanize transgender people (while using them as props).
But this phase of the moral panic doesn’t sit well with the women who want credit for starting it. Often disparaged as TERFs, or “trans-exclusionary radical feminists,” many of them prefer the term “gender critical,” and they’ve long stoked fears that soon all teenagers will reject their sex assigned at birth because it’s trendy, or something. Of special concern to the TERFs are trans women, whom they falsely accuse of being, in fact, male predators, using access to women’s bathrooms to intimidate, harass and assault them. When they’re not making such unfounded claims, the TERF set are publishing junk science books that lift conspiracy theories from Nazis.
Until now, the alliance between TERFs and men’s far-right hate groups has been largely tacit, though fleetingly visible during episodes like the Proud Boys’ march in response to a transphobic hoax centered around a spa in L.A. Now, with oppressive policy being shaped and different personalities vying for control of the movement, tension between those camps has escalated — partly because the women are demanding recognition from men with larger platforms arriving to the issue in recent months, and partly because those men reject feminism in all forms, even the TERFs’ miserably attenuated version of it.
Christopher Rufo, the reactionary who helped manufacture a similar controversy over critical race theory in schools, this week made it clear that his campaign against trans rights only views TERFs as a weapon to destabilize the left, and is opposed to them on everything but this vein of discrimination.
There is some schadenfreude in this schism, particularly as transphobic “liberal” women see their ideas and arguments co-opted by misogynists and open fascists. Alas, it will be little comfort to the marginalized community under threat at present. What would be nice is a disagreement so severe that it’s no longer politically expedient or advantageous for either side to maintain this coalition, or to pursue its goals. Most likely, the conservative men will in time move on to a new scapegoat for society’s ills — they always do — and the TERFs will be left to gripe among themselves once more, but with the knowledge of who their true bedfellows are.