“The Perils of TERF Epistemologies”

At the beginning of June of this year, writer J.K. Rowling made a volatile thread of comments surrounding the validity of trans women’s existence, explicitly marking the separation between “women” and “trans people” in a variety of tweets and interviews. Rowling’s trans-exclusionary radical feminist (hereinafter ‘TERF’) ideology–an ideology quite the actual opposite of ‘radically feminist’–however, dates back decades before her arrival to notorioty with her first major literature piece, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, in the 1990s. Such TERF ideology that Rowling articulates echos similar sentiments seen throughout earlier eras in history in which the validity of womanhood in bodies that were not white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, and middle-to-upper class were attacked and scrutinized. From the exclusion of trans women in women-only spaces as well as in specific lesbian-only spaces throughout the 1970s, it becomes evident that such cisheterosexist processes of gatekeeping who may claim and reject womanhood relies on the compulsively-binary and biologically-essentialist understanding of ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ which further contributes to the social isolation, disenfranchisement, and life-threatening circumstances trans women continue to face throughout our lives across generations.

For the purpose of this essay, I seek to contextualize three major perilous statements Rowling made in the thread of her tweets, attacking the validity of trans women as something deceitful and fake, while also weaving in other visual histories of TERF epistemologies to exemplify the critical need for deliberate inclusion of trans lesbians within overarching women-only spaces, lesbian circles and other intersecting communities. In addition to analyzing what Rowling is quite literally stating throughout her TERF tweets, I likewise strive in bringing to light the implications of such ideologies surrounding trans bodies and frameworks of ‘womanhood’ which specifically objectify and aggravate the experiences of trans lesbian women. Likewise, Rowling’s posts insist on the evaporation of all diverse bodies across the trans spectrum into solely that of “trans people,” tearing apart at the reality than trans people can and do simultaneously hold identities as men, women, non-binary, or genderless folx—all of which identities intersecting and manifesting dependending on our own social positionality. Being a white trans dyke, I recognize the extent in which my voice may be uplifting yet also silencing in this conversation pertaining to trans women who feel romantic and/or sexual attraction outside of a cisheteronormative binary. I do, nonetheless, aspire to urgently uplift the voices of other queer trans women, and especially Black and Indigenous queer trans women, who have and continue to remain subject to disproportionate levels of violence by the state, law, community organizing, and various other realms which Rowling’s posts reflect most potently. 

It is worth noting that TERF ideology is nothing new to us trans women and trans lesbians; trans women have been self-taught about the exclusion of our bodies in such spaces across society since day one. When referencing the 1970s specifically as a crucial decade in history luminous of immense political advocacy and as well as feminist and gay rights activism, we often forget that trans women received none of such luxury and, in fact, quite the opposite treatment even in such activist circles.  In 1972, the San Francisco chapter of Daughters of Bilitis, one of the premier radical lesbian organizations of the time, forced out their vice-president, Beth Elliott, when other members of the organization found out  Elliott was a trans woman. Elliott’s exclusion from Daughters of Bilitis was followed by further months of excessive transphobic torment by another feminist activist by the name of Robin Morgan, who accused Elliott of falsely identifying herself and “raping women’s spaces,” going to the extent of rewriting keynote address to specifically “feature a viciously trans-misogynist attack on Elliot’s participation in the West Coast Lesbian Conference the year prior (Heaney 2016:138). A year later at the Christopher Street Liberation Day in New York–the annual anniversary day for the rebellion at Stonewall Inn–lesbian activist and founder of Lesbian Feminist Liberation, Jean O’Leary, verbally attacked Sylvia Rivera, one of the organizers of Stonewall and leaders of the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.), calling her a “man in women’s clothing” in front of thousands on stage (Heaney 2016). Rivera, one of the crucial individuals in the rebellion at Stonewall, remained ostracized even within the gay rights movement whom she was fighting for.

Practically identical in occurrence to these incidents and shared terminology, trans lesbian musician and activist, Sandy Stone, was kicked out from Olivia Records, a radical women’s record label founded by TERF lesbians, in 1977 despite having served as their head sound engineer for years on the sole basis of her trans identity. Two years after that, feminist activist Janice Raymond would publish her trans-exclusionary feminist text, The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male in which she quotably stated “All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves” (1979). What we see time after time again across this decade, and reflectively luminous still to this day, is the exclusion of trans women from social spaces designed for “women-only” on the basis that trans women are not real women. 

 Trans women are undoubtedly not the only group of women who have been rejected from acquiring the formal right and autonomy surrounding our own identities. From the ways in which Indigenous practices of queer and Two-Spirit gender expressions have been brutalized and the systemic violence on Black women’s bodies to the intentional ejection of immigrant women and barring of lesbians in women-only spaces, it becomes apparent that the definition of woman inextricably rejects more than it includes. Jacob Hale pulls from other trans and queer theorists who have criticized the definition of womanhood, femininity and masculinity like Jack Halberstam and Kate Bornstein and offers a non-exhaustive list of how our society generally goes about “Defining Characteristics of the Woman” including, specifically, the absence of a penis; presence of breasts; presence of reproductive organs allowing for pregnancy, estrogen and progesterone hormones, and XX chromosomes; a gender identity as a woman as well as an occupation and lifestyle deemed acceptable for a woman; and sexual/romantic engagement with a heterosexual man. (2006:291-293). Under such regulated and punitive characteristics, it should be evident that this list excludes other women besides those who are trans. At the same time, this list disproportionately attacks the validity of trans women, especially queer trans women and trans women of color. Trans women who do not seek out various forms of gender affirming care already are socially deemed as invalid. Trans women who then challenge their own, as well as the social standing, of the definition of ‘woman’ as a cisheterosexual binary entity further bares us from other spaces intended to create safety and inclusion for all women.

When we as a culture homogenize women to essentialist ideas emphasizing pussies and boobs, conventionality and femininity, whiteness and wealth, we create an archetype of that woman and kick out anyone lacking a complete possession of those requirements. In Excluded, Julia Serano makes the point “when we take pride in how fundamentally different we are from men, we unknowingly engage in a dangerous game of opposites” (2013:38). If women have pussies and boobs, then an individual who has anything else cannot be woman (and just as monstrously, an individual with those characteristics who rejects the overarching title is nonetheless subjected to being solely, and nothing but, a woman). These contradictions have haunted trans women–and trans people of all genders–for decades and, sadly, these perilous TERF epistemologies have only resurfaced today in new and damaging ways.

When looking at the first of Rowling’s tweets which highlights the ubiquitously essentialist idea of ‘sex’ as an item that is pre-determined at birth by science, permanently binaric and un-alterable, and misconstruingly inseparable from one’s sexual attraction, she attempts to question: “If sex isn’t real, there’s no same-sex attraction. If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased…” The concept of ‘sex’ has been socially constructed and systemically upheld within our society since European colonialists weaponded themselves with such frameworks of hate across the continent of Turtle Island in the early 15th century. The concept of one’s sex is not a one-or-the-other, ‘male’ or ‘female,’ penis or vagina basis. These frameworks of understanding sex completely erase the vast experiences and realities of intersex people, not to mention further upholds a colonial white supremacist mindset that refuses to recognize Indigenous queer and Two-Spirit peoples whose gender and sex were attacked and erased because of settler colonialism and imperialism in the early stages of colonialism across the Americas. Likewise, to utter a definition of sexuality as something that is focused on one’s genitalia is to further regurgitate the idea that sex and gender are two inseperable characters both dependant on such genitalia. The reality of women which Rowling references, similar to prior examples, homogenizes the reality of all diverse women across this continent as a singular shared-reality across all women. While trans women and cis women both meet at intersections of being woman, to claim that such experiences will be identical is to invalidate the realities of trans women and specifically Black and Indigenous trans women whose realities have remained contested for generations. 

The second tweet from Rowling included the additional statement in which she stated she “[has] been empathetic to trans people for decades, feeling kinship because they’re vulnerable in the same way as women… i.e. to male violence” (2020). Cis women, like Rowling as she self-proclaims, on a systematic cultural level have not been empathetic toward trans women. That is a blatant lie. While there have been undoubtedly positive interpersonal relationships between trans women and cis women across such decades, on a larger level trans women have been treated with anything but empathy. Not to mention, conglomerating trans women, trans men, nonbinary folx, and gender non-conforming people into that of “trans people”–assuming each and every one of us feels and becomes vulnerable in equivalent ways specifically in relation to ‘male violence’ is extremely dangerous. Trans women, specifically Black and Indigenous trans women, face disproportionate levels of vulnerability and violence. This is not an opinion. Black trans women have a life expectancy of 35 years and repeatedly remain subject to state violence and genocide. Turn on the news–even on Fox–and the screens will shine brightly of trans women being murdered and banned from nearly every social setting and political program because cis men in this country continue to be handed all the power in this world to strike away at our rights and our voices.

The final and potentially most interesting of Rowling’s tweets is in which she proudly claims: “I’d march with you [trans people] if you were discriminated against on the basis of being trans. At the same time, my life has been shaped by being female…” Rowling here assumes that trans people alone are their own holistic identity group, further implying that discrimination subjected onto trans bodies manifests as a result of that singular identity of one’s transness. However, this lens completely lacks intersectionality; it should be apparent that concluding there are distinct social categories of ‘women’ and ‘trans people’ totally disregards the intersections and validity of trans women who are just as women as they are trans. 

When a trans woman faces discrimination and hate, it is not solely because she is trans or because she is a woman alone. When Beth Elliott was removed from her position as Vice-President of Daughters of Bilitis it was not because she was just a woman or a trans person, but because she was a trans woman. When Sylvia Rivera was antagonized onstage during the Christopher Street Liberation Day orchestration and labeled as a man in woman’s clothing, she was called so because she was a trans woman. These trans-misogynystic attacks seen across generations remain ubiquitous in our culture because we refuse to revoke the biological essentialist idea that one must be assigned female and abide by social codes of hegemonic femininity in order to gain the status of woman. Nancy Jean Burkholder was expelled two decades later from the 1991 Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (MWMF), a music festival in the rural woods with a lineup of radical lesbian artists for a specific-lesbian audience, because Burkholder was a trans woman and the Festival had an explicit “womyn-born-womyn only” policy (Boyd 2003:428). Powersurge, a radical BDSM conference designed as a “lesbian only space,” would later follow MWMF’s lead by implementing their own TERF policies “[welcoming] women born women leatherdykes (chromosonal females only)” for their 1993 national conference (2003:427). Trans women, and especially as noted trans lesbians, have watched history repeatedly exclude our bodies and desires within not only feminist spaces but lesbian and gay spaces just the same. 

When J.K. Rowling directly targets trans women, separating us and dividing us into our own gender category, we are revoked the autonomy not only to name our own gender but also our sexualities and other intersecting identities. When we read Rowling’s tweets, just as important as it is to allow yourself to be irritated, upset, pissed off, etc. it is likewise vital to recognize that Rowling’s TERF sentiments have been around longer than she has been. Trans women deserve the right to name our own identities and experiences. We do not need to be stepped on and repeatedly mocked by TERFs who can create thousands of pages of vivid imagery surrounding witchcraft and magic–whole other worlds and treacherous beings–yet remain dumbfounded by the enchantment of a trans woman simply living out her own truth. 


Boyd, Nan Alamilla. 2006. “Bodies in Motion: Lesbian and Transsexual Histories.” Transgender Studies Reader 1:420-433. NY: Routledge.

Hale, Jacob. 2006. “Are Lesbians Women?” Transgender Studies Reader 1:281-299, edited by Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle. NY: Routledge.

Heaney, Emma. 2016. “Women-Identified Women: Trans Women in 1970s Lesbian Feminist  Organizing.” Transgender Studies Quarterly 3(1-2):137-145.

Serano, Julia. 2013. Excluded: Making Feminism and Queer Movements More Inclusive. Berkeley,  CA: Seal Press.

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