A “Gender Critical” and “TERF” Primer

for readers trying to make sense of “feminists versus transgender activists” debates

Julia Serano
18 min readJun 11, 2024
photo entitled “Woman in Discussing A Lesson Plan.” she is dressed conservatively, holding a large open book in her left hand. she is holding a pointer in her right hand, which gestures at what appears to be a large blackboard where all the previous writings/markings have been erased.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio at Pexels

There are many strands of feminism: liberal, radical, lesbian, separatist, anti-pornography, sex-positive, poststructuralist, materialist, Marxist, womanist, intersectional, postcolonial, ecofeminist, to name but a few. Each of these strands defines the mission, scope, and focus of feminism somewhat differently. And within each strand, there may be further differences of opinion.

This essay is about one particular strand that is sometimes called “Gender Critical” (GC) or “Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism” (TERF). Here, I will use the acronym “GC/TERF” as an umbrella term, although I will also be highlighting some of the differences that exist within this umbrella.

The distinguishing characteristic of GC/TERFism is the belief that feminism and transgender activism are somehow fundamentally opposed to one another: Every step forward for trans rights is necessarily a step backwards for women’s rights. Crucially, this position is not generally held by other feminists, especially those who recognize intersectionality: that different forms of marginalization exist and exacerbate one another, so we should work to simultaneously end all of them.

Because of GC/TERFs’ nearly singular focus on opposing trans rights, they will sometimes dismiss trans-inclusive feminists as “anti-woman,” “misogynist,” or “handmaidens.” That is to say, GC/TERFs portray themselves as the only true feminists, rather than acknowledging differences of opinion within feminism.

Reciprocally, because GC/TERFs tend to pay little attention to more standard feminist concerns and sometimes even team up with social conservatives in order to push their shared anti-trans policies and rhetoric, trans people and allies will sometimes claim that GC/TERFs are not actually feminists. While it is true that many people who call themselves “gender critical” these days couldn’t care less about feminism (especially in the UK, where the term is now widely used as a euphemism for “anti-trans”), here I will be focusing on the feminist origins of this movement.

For the record, I am writing this essay from the standpoint of a trans feminist who believes that feminism and trans activism are not only compatible but desperately need one another. For those curious about my bona fides, you can check out my books Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive, and Sexed Up: How Society Sexualizes Us, and How We Can Fight Back, all of which were published by the feminist publishing house Seal Press and have received praise from other feminists. I have been writing about GC/TERFism since the early 2000s (before the labels “TERF” or “gender critical” even existed) and have witnessed several shifts in this movement over the years. This is my good faith attempt to chronicle this movement and its beliefs.

A Brief History of GC/TERFism

Anti-trans sentiments first began to coalesce within feminism during the 1970s with the rise of cultural feminism. This movement evolved out of its predecessor radical feminism, as chronicled in Alice Echols’ book Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967–1975 and in this 1983 article of hers. According to Echols, radical feminists worked to overthrow the patriarchy — i.e., the social system that keeps men in positions of power and women marginalized. In her article, Echols shares an Anne Koedt quote that sums up this perspective: “The biological male is the oppressor not by virtue of his male biology, but by virtue of his rationalizing his supremacy on the basis of that biological difference” [emphasis in original].

In contrast, cultural feminists flipped that hierarchy on its head: Men were deemed inherently dangerous and oppressive (read: bad), whereas women were imagined to be naturally creative and cooperative (read: good). Drawing heavily from Echols, this is how I described this shift in Whipping Girl (pp. 349–350):

While radical feminism — which asserted that neither sex was inherently superior to the other — actively engaged the mainstream public (and men in particular) to challenge and change their sexist ways, cultural feminism was a more insular movement, focusing on creating women-run organizations and women-only spaces rather than organizing public demonstrations. And unlike radical feminism, which attempted to accommodate a variety of different female perspectives (in fact, issues over “difference” in class and sexuality consumed much of the movement’s energy), cultural feminists forwarded the idea of “sameness” and “oneness” — that all women were part of a universal sisterhood, united by their female biology.

Many feminists in these settings believed that gender roles (including masculine and feminine gender expression) were the product of patriarchy and inherently tied to male domination and female subjugation. As a result, they often accused women who engaged in conventional femininity, butch/femme relationships, bisexuality, BDSM, pornography, and/or sex work of being “male-identified” (read: corrupted by patriarchy) and thus constituting a potential threat to other women. Similar fears of male/patriarchal corruption informed cultural feminist views of trans people. Specifically, trans female/feminine people were imagined to be “men” who were out to corrupt women’s spaces and movements, and trans male/masculine people were imagined to be “women” who had been irreparably corrupted by patriarchy.

While such anti-trans sentiments were expressed by some feminists throughout the 1970s (see Susan Stryker’s Transgender History, 2008, pp. 101–111, for numerous examples), they were codified with the release of Janice Raymond’s 1979 book The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male. In the Preface to the first edition, Raymond claims that trans people are “a recent phenomenon generated by the medical profession” as part of a devious patriarchal scheme to replace “biological women” with “male-to-constructed-females” (i.e., trans women).

While this ludicrous narrative didn’t garner much traction, three of Raymond’s other assertions did and continue to be promoted by contemporary GC/TERF activists. First, Raymond insisted that trans people are naively driven to transition by a desire to embody conventional gender stereotypes. But since this hypothesis clearly does not apply to many trans people (e.g., trans women who are lesbian feminists), she additionally argued that trans women are oppressive “men” who strive to “colonize,” “appropriate,” and “rape” women’s bodies and communities. While these two depictions of trans women are contradictory (are we “dangerous rapists who actively oppress women” or “dupes who are brainwashed by doctors to passively accept a submissive feminine role”?), they make sense as a tactic, in the longstanding tradition of painting one’s enemy as “at the same time too strong and too weak.”

Finally, Raymond’s conclusion that “the problem of transsexualism would best be served by morally mandating it out of existence” continues to be touted by contemporary GC/TERF activists (for instance, via the proposed Declaration on Women’s Sex-Based Rights).

While cultural feminist attitudes persisted throughout the 1980s, they receded in the 1990s with the rise of third-wave feminisms. I say “feminisms” plural here because this wave was comprised of different strands, including feminists of color who forwarded the concept of intersectionality, sex-positive feminists who worked to destigmatize sex and sexuality, and poststructuralists who challenged essentialism and the assumption that “woman” is a singular stable category. Poststructuralism greatly influenced queer theory and activism, which eschewed organizing around fixed identities (such as “woman” or “gay”) in favor of challenging gender and sexual norms more generally.

Unlike cultural feminism, these latter strands of feminism were more open to trans perspectives and, gradually over time, such feminists recognized that trans people had a stake in feminism too. This recognition was facilitated by transgender activists of the 1990s who forwarded the concept of the gender binary. If you read trans activists from this time period (e.g., Kate Bornstein, Leslie Feinberg, Riki Wilchins), you’ll find that they not only discussed how the gender binary harms trans people, but how it also creates obstacles for people across all genders.

In my 2007 book Whipping Girl, I forwarded a model that helps make the connections between feminism and trans activism even more evident. I argued that most manifestations of sexism that feminists have articulated fall into one of two camps: traditional sexism and oppositional sexism. Traditional sexism is the assumption that femaleness and femininity are inferior to, or less legitimate than, maleness and masculinity. Oppositional sexism is the assumption that male and female are mutually exclusive categories, each possessing a distinct set of attributes, aptitudes, abilities, and desires (akin to the gender binary described above). Together, these two forms of sexism create the double bind that feminists have long described, where if a woman behaves in ways that are coded as masculine (e.g., being assertive or aggressive) she will be disparaged due to oppositional sexism, but if she behaves femininely, she will not be taken seriously due to traditional sexism.

This model explains why cultural feminism ultimately fails women: While cultural feminists may speak out against traditional sexism, they tend to embrace oppositional sexism. This model also helps to make sense of how oppositional and traditional sexism intersect in the lives of trans female/feminine people — a phenomenon I called transmisogyny and discussed throughout the book.

By the late 2000s, opposition to trans people had become a minority position within feminism. Those who expressed such views online during this time often described themselves as “radfems” (short for “radical feminists”) and they espoused negative sentiments not only about trans people, but toward women who were sex-positive, feminine, and/or heterosexual (whom they sometimes dismissed as “funfems”). In 2008, cisgender feminist Viv Smythe coined the acronym “TERF” (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism) to distinguish such individuals from the many radical feminists who were trans-inclusive.

The origin of “gender critical” is less clear, but the earliest usage of the phrase I could find (via Advanced Google searches) was in September 2013 with the formation of the subreddit “r/gendercritical.” (Reddit eventually banned this subreddit in 2020 for promoting hate.) The rationale behind the name “gender critical” most likely stems from the recurring GC/TERF “end of gender” argument that goes something like this: 1) gender is merely a man-made class system designed to oppress women and which therefore must be eliminated, 2) transgender people “buy into” and thus “reinforce” this class system, thereby undermining women and feminism. I point out the many flaws inherent this argument in Excluded, pp.113–133, a small excerpt of which can be read here.

While some people self-identify as “TERFs,” the majority of trans-exclusionary feminists today seem to prefer “gender critical.” Some would argue that this is because “TERF is a slur.” While not factually true — as I said, the term was coined by a cis feminist to simply distinguish between trans-inclusive and trans-exclusionary radical feminists — some trans people and allies have taken to using “TERF” as a synonym for “transphobe” regardless of whether the person in question espouses feminist beliefs or not. And the fact that “TERF” is literally a four-letter word likely leads some people to misinterpret it as a slur.

However, I would argue that the linguistic shift from “TERF” to “gender critical” primarily reflects a change in both the philosophy and composition of this movement. The TERFs of the late 2000s–early 2010s were almost exclusively radical/cultural feminists who were invested in a particular (if flawed) feminist worldview. In contrast, “gender critical” (which notably omits the word “feminism”) has grown into a broad movement of people from different political backgrounds (liberal, center, conservative) who are opposed to trans people and who use “pro-woman”-sounding rhetoric to justify our exclusion from society.

The strategy here is pretty straightforward: If you vocally oppose a minority group, you will likely come across as a bigot. But if you frame that opposition as being in defense or support of some other marginalized group (such as women, or LGB people in “drop the T” campaigns), then your efforts may strike uninformed outsiders as being righteous. As the Southern Poverty Law Center documented in 2017, this is how one anti-trans activist instructed other social conservatives on how to frame their position:

Explain that gender identity rights only come at the expense of others: women, sexual assault survivors, female athletes forced to compete against men and boys, ethnic minorities who culturally value modesty, economically challenged children who face many barriers to educational success and don’t need another level of chaos in their lives, children with anxiety disorders and the list goes on and on and on.

Arguably, the most common gender-critical talking point along this line is that trans people supposedly pose a threat to girls and women in sex-segregated spaces. In my essay Transgender People, Bathrooms, and Sexual Predators: What the Data Say, I share studies that demonstrate that trans people and trans-inclusion policies pose no such threat, and review past historical instances in which similar language has been wielded against other minorities (such as people of color and LGB people). Indeed, calls to “protect women and children” (read: of the dominant/majority group) from some stigmatized outgroup is a common refrain in right-wing campaigns, so we shouldn’t confuse this tactic with feminism.

Gender-critical activists also routinely claim that trans people are “erasing” or “silencing” women, neither of which is true.

The claim that trans people — who comprise less than 1 percent of the population — are somehow capable of “erasing women” is farcical, unless of course you buy into Janice Raymond’s conspiracy theory that “biological woman is in the process of being made obsolete by bio-medicine” (Raymond, 1979, p. xxiii). For this reason, GC/TERFs typically deploy “erasing” in a vague and flimsy fashion.

For instance, if a trans woman wins an award or is appointed to a position within a women’s organization, GC/TERFs will describe this as an instance of women being “erased” — that is to say, the trans woman has supposedly “replaced” a hypothetical cis woman who would have otherwise received said accolade or position. The unspoken implication here is that trans women should not be allowed to participate in the public sphere, as any success we achieve could be construed as constituting the “erasure of women” in some way or other.

Contradictorily, GC/TERFs also sometimes point to trans men as examples of the “erasure of women” — that is, these individuals “were” or “should” be “women” but no longer are. It is difficult to square how people transitioning in opposite directions can both be “erasing women” until you realize that the phrase is essentially meaningless — its only purpose is to evoke fear or concern about the existence of trans people.

Accusations of “erasing women” are also routinely invoked in response to trans-inclusive language, particularly phrases like “pregnant people” or “people who menstruate.” To clarify a common misconception: This language is not intended to be inclusive of trans female/feminine people, but rather of trans male/masculine people who were assigned female at birth, some of whom do menstruate and can become pregnant. Parker Molloy’s article Nobody is trying to ban the word “woman” provides a good overview of such alarmist claims. It must also be said that many trans people explicitly describe ourselves as women, and GC/TERFs are well aware of this — in fact, they routinely proclaim “trans women are not women” in response to it. In other words, GC/TERFs know that trans people are not trying to “erase the word woman” and if they suggest otherwise they are being purposely disingenuous.

GC/TERFs often use “silencing women” in a manner similar to “erasing women.” But “silencing” may also be used in a manner akin to “canceling” (à la “cancel culture”). For instance, when GC/TERFs receive criticism for their anti-trans views, they will often retort that their critics are attempting to “silence” them. They may additionally imply that said critics are “oppressive men” who are “speaking over women” — this not only misgenders many trans critics (e.g., trans women) but ignores the many trans-inclusive cis women who also publicly disagree with GC/TERF positions. Given that many GC/TERF positions are extreme (e.g., trans people should be morally mandated out of existence) and that GC/TERF rhetoric is often “hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive,” it is patently absurd to suggest that trans people and allies should not be allowed to protest such beliefs and language lest they be accused of “silencing women.”

Countering Other GC/TERF Talking Points

It is impossible to counter every single GC/TERF talking point, as there are so many of them. But here are brief responses to a few of the most prevalent ones.

GC/TERFs tend to center “biological sex” in their arguments, often pitting it against gender identity or “gender ideology” in such a way as to imply that the former is “real” while the latter is “fake,” “frivolous,” and “immaterial.” In my video Trans People and Biological Sex: What the Science Says, I refute this false dichotomy in great detail. In a companion essay to the video, I dissect the recent “gender critical” obsession with gametes. I also encourage you to read Sandra Duffy on how the GC/TERF concept of “sex-based rights” doesn’t actually exist, and essays by Sara Ahmed and Grace Lavery on how GC/TERFs’ obsession with “biological sex” is antithetical to feminism.

Somewhat hypocritically (given how much they stress the importance of “biological sex”), GC/TERFs will often raise the issue of trans women’s presumed male privilege or male socialization — I address these arguments at great length in Whipping Girl and the linked-to essays. Other GC/TERF arguments designed to undermine our identities and lived experiences as women are countered in my essays Debunking “Trans Women Are Not Women” Arguments and What Is a Woman? (a response).

Like anti-trans activists more generally, GC/TERFs often raise concerns about gender-affirming care for trans youth — that link will bring you to my essay debunking the most common misconceptions and disinformation on this subject (it includes references to over 100 peer-reviewed studies and reviews). In separate essays, I’ve addressed other trans-youth-related GC/TERF talking points, including “ROGD/social contagion,” “shifting sex ratios,” “detransition,” “80% desistance,” “gay conversion/lesbian extinction,” and “grooming.”

Those who wish to depict trans women as “sexual predators infiltrating women’s spaces” will often make hay out of lesbian and bisexual trans women who participate in queer women’s communities and/or use lesbian dating apps. However, it turns out that even in the UK (where GC/TERFism is most pervasive), lesbian and bisexual women show the highest levels of trans acceptance among cisgender people (with 84% having positive views of trans people according to a 2023 survey).

GC/TERFs who play the “sexual predator” card will also sometimes cite a thirty-five-year-old sexology theory called “autogynephilia (AGP),” despite it being rooted in extremely male-centric (and now outdated) views of gender and sexuality. All my writings on this topic are compiled in Autogynephilia, Junk Science, and Pseudoscience. If you read just one of those, make it my 2020 peer-reviewed article Autogynephilia: A Scientific Review, Feminist Analysis, and Alternative ‘Embodiment Fantasies’ Model, which also appears in the collection TERF Wars: Feminism and the Fight for Transgender Futures that includes other feminist authors and academics responding to the GC/TERF movement.

Finally, it has become impossible to talk about this issue without author J.K. Rowling’s name coming up, as she has become a sort of figurehead for the movement in recent years. GC/TERFs will insist that she is “not transphobic” (see link for counterevidence) and frame the abuse she has received since speaking out on this matter (e.g., death threats and derogatory comments) as evidence that trans people really are inherently violent and threatening. Personally, I have received death threats, slurs, harassment, defamation, and impersonation attempts from GC/TERFs myself, but I don’t go around insisting that cis women are inherently violent and threatening. This is a classic trope: The minority group is viewed as homogeneous and held accountable for any and all actions its individual constituents make, whereas the majority group is not.

The truth of the matter is that GC/TERFs are actively working to ban access to gender-affirming care and to push trans people out of the public sphere. Trans people are not doing anything remotely similar to cis women, despite all the flimsy accusations of “erasing” and “silencing” women to the contrary. There is a very clear dominant/majority group (cis people) and marginalized/minority group (trans people) at play here. Cis women like Rowling may portray themselves as “the real victims,” but that’s akin to how the religious right portray their heterosexual marriages as being “under attack” from the mere existence of gay people and same-sex marriage.

What Drives GC/TERFism?

While the GC/TERF movement has its origins in a very specific strand of radical/cultural feminism that deemed a wide array of gender and sexual identities as inherently “patriarchal” (including men and trans people, but also heterosexual and bisexual women, femininity and butch/femme relationships, and so on), very few contemporary GC/TERFs adhere to such beliefs. This raises the question: Who are all these newly minted GC/TERFs and what is motivating them?

It seems clear (e.g., from the Southern Poverty Law Center article I excerpted earlier) that some of these people are simply longtime transphobes who opportunistically embrace GC/TERF rhetoric because it provides a more palatable way deride and condemn trans people.

While transphobia certainly plays a role in animating this movement, I don’t think that all self-described GC/TERFs are driven by it. Back in 2018, I coined the term “TUMF” (Trans-Unaware Mainstream Feminist) to describe the many cis women who know little about trans people and thus are susceptible to believing GC/TERF caricatures of us. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard cis women recount how they initially embraced GC/TERFism for a period of time before they learned more about trans experiences and perspectives.

While some individuals ultimately come to reject GC/TERFism, others may go further down the rabbit hole. Most of my personal encounters with GC/TERFs occur online when their social media accounts suddenly appear in my notifications and/or pile-on my posts. Before blocking them, I will often briefly check out their timelines and, far more often than not, their feeds are chock-full of anti-trans content — for some, it’s all they seem to post about. In addition to following one another and boosting each other’s posts, their profile pages often sport similar hashtags and banners signaling their GC/TERF affiliation. In other words, this goes well beyond standard expressions of prejudice and veers into the realm of obsession. Some people have compared GC/TERF online communities to a cult — for more on this, see Caelan Conrad’s video Gender Critical: Recruitment. In a recent essay, I argued that GC/TERFism and its conceptualization of “gender ideology” displays all the hallmarks of a conspiracy theory. (Of course, these things are not mutually exclusive.)

So why do some people (but not others) become so obsessed and paranoid about trans people that they seem to organize much of their lives around us? Well, in 2022, I published a two-part series of essays (Penises, Privilege, and Feminist & LGBTQ+ Purity Politics and Anti-Trans “Grooming” and “Social Contagion” Claims Explained) that attributed this to the stigma-contamination mindset. I won’t recount that entire argument here, but the following excerpt from the latter essay will hopefully provide a brief overview:

Our lay conceptualization of prejudice — e.g., viewing other people as “inferior” to us, or disliking or detesting them — doesn’t seem to adequately accommodate this level of irrationality and obsession. But the stigma-contamination mindset does. If people (consciously or unconsciously) view trans people as an insidious “corrupting” force that’s out to “contaminate” and permanently “spoil” them and their loved ones, then it at least makes some sense as to why they might feel the need to patrol our every move, or buy into conspiracy theories that depict us as some kind of “all-powerful cabal.”

Notably, some anti-trans campaigners’ lives seem to have been “touched” by transness in one way or other. Perhaps their child, or partner, or a close relative came out as trans? Or perhaps they unexpectedly found themselves attracted to a trans person, or maybe their partner left them for someone who is trans? It doesn’t even need to be sexual: Maybe they simply find us bizarre or fascinating, and can’t stop thinking about us (like an itch they can’t help but scratch)?

If you view anti-trans stigma as a “contagion” — or worse, fear that you may have already been “contaminated” or “infected” by said “contagion” — well, that would certainly explain much of the hyper-vigilance and moral panic expressed by many die-hard anti-trans campaigners.

In summary, while GC/TERF remains a useful term to describe a unified set of beliefs and arguments centered on the (false) notion that transgender rights are fundamentally at odds with women’s rights, we should keep in mind that individuals who promote GC/TERFism may vary significantly in their motivations, with some being more ideological or extreme than others.

Concluding Remarks

Outside of GC/TERF circles, trans people are widely acknowledged to be a pancultural and transhistorical phenomenon — we (like LGBTQIA+ people more generally) arise as part of natural variation, as I detail in my Trans People and Biological Sex: What the Science Says video.

The cis majority can react to this reality in one of two ways: They can learn to accept (or at least tolerate) our existence and allow us to participate in society. Or they can work to push us out of the public sphere entirely, forcing us back underground and into the closet, where we spent much of the twentieth century.

GC/TERFs have made their position quite clear: They are squarely on team “push trans people out of the public sphere.” They may dress it up in esoteric language (“gender ideology,” “sex-based rights,” “adult human female”) and hyperbolic statements (“the greatest assault of my lifetime on women’s rights”), but if you look at the entire body of what they are proposing, it’s a world that is utterly inhospitable for trans people.

You don’t have to agree with everything that every trans person has ever said or done. Hell, I often disagree with other trans people about issues large and small. I also find some cis people’s actions and beliefs to be abominable (although I don’t hold that against all cis people). But in a just world, every person should have the right to be who they are and express themselves as they please, provided it doesn’t negatively impact the lives of others. Outside of vague, flimsy, and unsubstantiated accusations, GC/TERFs have not provided tangible evidence that trans people’s mere existence — our identities, transitions, and participation in society — impinges on the rights of cis women, or anyone else for that matter.

In other words, GC/TERFism is not just a flawed strand of feminism. It is an anti-trans discrimination movement first and foremost. And it should be recognized as such.

This essay was made possible by my Patreon supporters — if you appreciate it, please consider supporting me there. A non-paywalled version of the same essay can also be found on Substack.



Julia Serano

writes about gender, sexuality, social justice, & science. author of Whipping Girl, Excluded, 99 Erics, & her latest: SEXED UP! more at juliaserano.com