Transphobic terf or sex traitor? This trans rights culture war must stop

Spurious accusations of transphobia have chilling effect on women’s voices

Some days the new Ireland feels eerily like the old Ireland. Different identities, different rhetoric, but the same sanctimonious scapegoating of women who step out of line.

That was how I felt when I read Emer O'Toole's piece last week about how Irish feminists must avoid transphobia. Like Emer, I too was curious about the Irish Women's Lobby (IWL) and attended their inaugural International Women's Day event. The event I attended online focused on the sexual exploitation of women through a lens that recognises the particular impacts on migrant and working-class women. Speakers from the US, Sweden, Turkey, Ireland, and the UK presented research or spoke from lived experience.

Emer O'Toole saw "shocking transphobia". It is almost as though we attended two completely different events. Luckily all the presentations are on the IWL website so you can judge for yourself. Some Irish feminists place trans women front and centre in their activism. Most people when they think of trans women think of Lydia Foy who, with great dignity, fought for the right to be recognised legally as a woman. Back in the day, the language commonly used was transexual, but many younger transgender people now prefer the term transgender.

Today transgender identity is an umbrella term for a variety of identities including but not limited to trans men and trans women; non-binary people who identify outside notions of a female and male polarity; gender-fluid people whose gender identity changes over time; and men who like to cross dress and enjoy wearing stereotypically feminine clothes.


Some transgender-identified people take hormones and may also have surgery, but many will choose not to.

Societal acceptance

Societal acceptance for trans men and women who medically transition is generally high. A 2020 UK YouGov poll showed that only about 30 per cent of people were opposed to trans people using single-sex toilets and changing rooms congruent with their new gender. When they asked the same question about trans people who have not undergone any gender reassignment surgery, opposition to their inclusion rises dramatically. Some 70 per cent of people oppose their use of single-sex spaces in their new gender.

Butter-wouldn't-melt-in-their-mouths activists will tell you terf is an acronym for Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist, not a slur

The women involved in IWL have now been labelled “terfs”. Butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-their-mouths activists will tell you terf is an acronym for Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist, not a slur. Women who raise concerns about a conflict between transgender identity and women’s rights correctly identify terf as a gendered slur frequently accompanied by online threats of rape and violence. Unsurprisingly, men who raise concerns are not attacked with the same viciousness.

It is suggested that the culture war around transgender identity is a British issue and British terfs are expanding westward in a move to colonise Irish feminism.

This is divisive and sectarian nonsense and suggests that Irish people who raise concerns have no agency or capacity for independent thought. Furthermore, this culture war is global. Issues around transgender identity are set to convulse US politics for the next four years.

On February 20th, Carmen Calvo, the deputy prime minister of Spain, was executed in effigy by activists, in a reprise of a gruesome tradition dating back to the public execution of heretics during the Spanish Inquisition.

She was accused of transphobia despite her government’s commitment to removing medical and legal barriers to trans people self-identifying. The allegations of transphobia came when Carmen Calvo delayed a Bill citing the need to address potential conflicts between new transgender rights and existing rights that protect Spanish women based on their sex, rights which are explicitly protected by the Spanish constitution. She has a doctorate in constitutional law and seems well-placed to signpost potential legal issues.

Protected characteristic

On March 11th, the Scottish parliament passed the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill. One of the protected characteristics is transgender identity, which is defined as trans men and trans women, non-binary people and cross dressers.

Former Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont proposed an amendment to add sex as a protected characteristic. She argued that the case for including women “who understand hate crime more than any other group does” was “indisputable”. Her amendment was rejected by the government.

The profoundly challenging work of compassion is to find compassion for the people with whom you disagree

Joan McAlpine, SNP MSP, abstained in the vote on the Bill. She said, “It will seem bizarre to many people that men who enjoy cross-dressing are protected from hate crime, but women are not.”

Both women were accused of transphobic hate. At the same time, gender-based violence was to the forefront of our minds because of the murder of Sarah Everard. Most people seemed to understand exactly what they meant when they talked about men’s enduring violence against women.

In the context of transgender identities being enshrined in law, I don’t think we have a clear definition of gender or transgender identity. Nor have we put in the work to understand the potential conflicts with women’s rights.

For stating this opinion, I have been called a transphobic terf.

On the other hand, I have also been called a sex traitor because I support self-id for transgender adults, and I support medical transition for transgender youth in the context of holistic care that takes into account any complex presenting issues.

To the self-proclaimed “Irish feminists” who are filled with compassion for the women who agree with them, I would like to remind you how easy such compassion is. The profoundly challenging work of compassion is to find compassion for the people with whom you disagree.

In that space, talking and listening can begin and there is potential for resolution. This culture war is hurting innocent people.