Beyond the TERF Wars

H. Spandler managing editor of Asylum magazine writes.


This article was first published in Asylum: the radical mental health magazine (Spring 2022)

I’ve been increasingly upset and disturbed by the recent ‘debates’ that have been raging about Trans and gender identity. It feels like we’re living amid a Trans moral panic.  We haven’t really covered these issues in Asylum magazine, so I wanted to write about why mental health activists should both support Trans rights, and resist the escalation of the so-called TERF wars.

Anxiety and fear is constantly being whipped up on social media and amplified by the press, resulting in a toxic and harmful environment, especially for trans and non-binary people. Objections to Trans liberation often, and sometimes inaccurately, mobilise isolated examples of bad behaviour by individual trans people, usually trans women. Using an isolated example of behaviour by an individual member of an oppressed group is a tactic commonly used to discredit liberation movements.

This is reminiscent of the way the media stoked fear about gay men in the 1970s and 1980s, associating gay male sexuality with paedophilia and then AIDs. There was a small minority of pro-paedophile activists who infiltrated the early gay movement and some feminists opposed lowering the age of consent for gay men because of child protection concerns. However, their fears weren’t realised – the abuse of boys did not increase because of gay equality laws. 

Cover of the Spring 2022 Asylum magazine.

Closer to home, the press has often amplified fear about the mentally ill. The fact that a small minority of people diagnosed as mentally ill may become violent has been used to try to curtail the rights of mental health service users.  The presumed ‘danger’ the mentally ill pose to the public regularly surfaces in debates about closure of the Asylums, Community Care and Community Treatment Orders.

Sadly, a small minority of lesbian and gay organisations are trying to distance themselves from trans liberation. In my view, the LGBT+ movement deciding to exclude trans people would be like the psychiatric survivor movement excluding ‘schizophrenics’, as people with that diagnosis have often been associated in the media with violent crime. Trans people, especially trans women, have been central to the gay liberation movement, just like people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia have been central to the Mad Pride movement.

There are also some similarities here with Israel. Jewish people, like women, have been oppressed for centuries, but it is no solution to create a homeland that excludes and persecutes another oppressed group, whether Palestinians or Trans people. 

Scholars and philosophers might want to debate the complexities of sexuality and gender and the relationship between biology and culture. There are actually many divergent views on these issues, both amongst feminists, gender scholars and trans activists.  In my view, whilst those discussions are interesting and worthwhile, they should not be mobilised to curtail trans people’s rights or exclude trans people. After all, I recall heated debates in the early days of gay liberation about whether homosexuality was ‘born or made’. Yet, as it turned out, resolving that issue was not necessary to advance lesbian, gay and bisexual people’s rights. As gay sexuality has become increasingly accepted, it no longer matters so much, and no longer causes such division within the movement. 

Recent concerns about the rise of ‘gender identity ideology’ seems to have been sparked by opposition to reforms to the proposed Gender Recognition Act which would allow trans people to self-identify without having to go through lengthy, and often prohibitively expensive, medical and psychiatric assessments. Whilst this has been painted as ‘gender ideology gone mad’, recent research suggests that, in some ways, it was actually easier for trans people to self-certify in the past. Apparently, this was made harder for trans people, not because of any adverse effects on women, the public or service users, but (at least in part) because it resulted it a challenge to primogeniture (the sexist law of male inheritance). Zoe Playdon’s fascinating new book, The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes, unearths the story of a trans man who was legally challenged in the 1960s over his inheritance of a title because he was assigned female at birth. Playdon suggests that this marked a turning point, when psychiatry and psychology became more involved in the treatment and assessment of trans people.

From this time, transsexuality, like homosexuality, was seen as a mental illness and trans people, like gay people, were subjected to corrective ‘treatments’, including aversion therapy, to try to re-orientate their gender. Plus, there is plenty of evidence that lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people suffer increased rates of mental distress, in part due to oppression and discrimination. For all these reasons, trans, mad and gay people should be natural allies. This is the argument of a forthcoming book Queer and Trans Madness: Struggles for Social Justice, by Merrick Pilling.

In the meantime, not a day passes without some amplification of the trans moral panic, whether in the traditional media or social media. In my opinion, division, attacks and counter attacks are not helpful. It makes us all feel unsafe and threatened. Ultimately, it is bad for our mental health. Most trans, non-binary people (and, indeed, cis women) just want to live our lives in peace and safety.  

Many of the radical feminists who are trans exclusionary have contributed really important work exposing male violence and the widespread abuse of women and children. This part of their work should be applauded. Judith Butler has suggested that the global attack on so-called gender identity ideology is part of a wider backlash against gender and sexual liberation and a re-assertion of conservative family values. Whilst that is probably true, the implication that feminists who are concerned about biological sex-based rights are somehow ‘fascists’ is unhelpful.  Like Butler also says, we live in an increasingly divisive culture and the last thing we need is for oppressed people to turn against each other.  

Violence against women, whether cis or trans, should be never be acceptable. Women, and especially trans women, are most at risk of being subject to sexual and physical violence. Many women’s services have been safely including trans women for decades. The tiny minority of trans activists who physically, or even sexually, threaten ‘TERFs’ are reinforcing the problem, as are those who refuse to accept that trans people exist.  If transphobia really is a ‘phobia’, then maybe we, especially as mental health activists, need to be more empathic and compassionate.

We need to learn from feminists about organising against violence, and double down on efforts to prevent all forms of violence. That includes not reproducing violence in the way we debate and organise, but instead modelling mutual support, understanding and solidarity.  Instead of focusing on manufactured trans ‘debates’, we need to focus on the material realities of trans people lives. We need to find ways to protect and support all oppressed groups, not sow discord and division.

Resolving some of the issues involved in Trans liberation may be challenging, but let’s welcome this. After all, Mad liberation poses significant challenges too. If we’ve learnt anything through these struggles, it is this: throwing each other under the proverbial bus is never the way forward. 

The Anti*Capitalist Resistance Editorial Board may not always agree with all of the content we repost but feel it is important to give left voices a platform and develop a space for comradely debate and disagreement.  

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H. Spandler is the managing editor of Asylum magazine


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