One of the chief purposes of this publication is to track, hopefully relatively impartially, culture war trends and comment on them the way someone might comment on sports instead of participating in them directly. The war between transgender inclusive and transgender exclusive feminists, what HWFO calls “The TERF War,” is now at it’s to-date peak. Let’s start by analyzing some current snapshots, then run through a brief history of it, and finally look at how and why it’s come to this point.
The past few weeks I started to see a distinctive pattern emerge in the “Trending Topics” sidebar of Twitter. Every morning at around 8 AM Eastern, some key phrase of the transgender war would trend, and the same would happen in the evenings. Here are some snapshots with dates.
A steady drumbeat of people arguing about the modern form of woke transgender ideology goes back weeks. There were more snapshots, but I can’t fit them all in an email length newsletter.
To be clear, this What’s Happening section of the Twitter user interface is somewhat tailored to each user, which means my bar will look different than someone else’s. But I don’t change who I follow very often so a comparison of my bar over the past few weeks with my bar prior should be a relatively objective comparison. To strip this bias out, we could look at Google Trends, comparing the volume of searches for the word “TERF” compared to another hot culture war topic, such as the word “intersectionality.”
Intersectionality is flat, TERF is rising, and the TERF peak is double the intersectionality peak. I removed overlapping searches for “Turf” from the query because sometimes people misspell that synonym for grass in Google, and when we remove these it turns out Montana and Idaho fall completely out of the list, which is funny to me.
“Intersectionality” is the culture war concept that many (some say all) differential socioeconomic outcomes in the United States are a result of the intersection of someone’s identity groups, as promulgated by academic culture warrior Kimberle Crenshaw, which took hold heavily in 2020. Many books have been written on this topic and it features prominently in the woke academic fields such as Gender Studies or Whiteness Studies, so it has a deep foothold and a relatively large support infrastructure in the culture war on net. TERF is just a shitposting acronym and it’s peaked on Google Analytics at over double the intersectionality peak, and has recently well overtaken intersectionality as a term of curiosity in the Google using public. So what is a TERF?
Most regular readers of HWFO can skip this section, but if you’re new here, perhaps because one of those Google searches we just spoke about carried you to this article, I can give you a brief history.
Back in the 1990s and prior in Atlanta, the only bar that was open after curfew, or on Sunday at all, was a globally renowned 24 hour club called Backstreet. To get in you had to buy a membership, and because it was a private club it bypassed all the “blue laws” prohibiting the sale of alcohol during certain hours. Backstreet was a gay club, but lots of folks went if they wanted to keep partying when the other clubs closed. It was a notorious mecca for strippers when they got off of work, hosted the most notable drag show in the city, and such. I had a Backstreet card. My lesbian roommate briefed me on the etiquette: when you speak to a transgender woman you use the preferred pronouns of “she” and “her” because that’s the polite thing to do. I used the pronouns then, and I still do. The things that transpired in the co-ed bathrooms of Backstreet are legendary. It closed in 2004. Fast forward to now.
Because modern wokeness traces its roots to the PC (political correctness) movement, the greatest sin within modern wokeness is to offend someone. “Words are violence.” And when you put 1990s era etiquette through this churn, the result is the wokes stop saying “she/her” to transgender women to be polite, and instead they insist that this thing they’re saying to be polite must be real. “Trans women are women.” To buttress this belief, they rolled out the academic layer that Matt Walsh of the Daily Wire recently treated in his documentary “What is a Woman?” I have not watched this because I don’t feel like subscribing to the Daily Wire, but I’ve seen clips, and the interviews between Walsh and academics in the documentary mirror much of the overall “discourse” on the subject online.
While certainly a lot of the push back against this ideology comes from conservative outlets, the most heated push back comes from some feminists themselves, who view the ideology as providing an avenue for men to infringe on female only spaces. While the first battle lines were about which bathrooms transgender identifying people were to use, they broadened into sports and prisons as the woke ideology took hold in the institutions that governed them, placing biological males into women’s prisons or allowing them to compete in women’s triathlons and similar. These gender segregated spaces are important to defend for many feminists because prior generations of feminists fought for them to be put in place. Thus, the TERFs.
TERF stands for “Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist.” It was an acronym developed and promulgated largely by the users of Tumblr, a now relatively minor social media platform similar to Twitter which had a lot of traffic in the prior decade. Tumblr became heavily dominated by users within the woke thought sphere, and many modern woke aphorisms originated there. The point of the acronym was not to attack conservatives, but rather to slander any feminist who did not fall in line with modern woke gender ideology, and that approached worked for quite a while. If you were a woman marching in the Woman’s March in 2018, and it became known you did not include transgender women in your concept of women, you were at physical risk of actual violence. “Punch a TERF” was common parlance at this time, and anyone pushing back against the dominant transgender ideology within the left had to do so in secret. “Look, I’m not a TERF, but…” Some of the earliest TERFs were lesbians who did not want biological males invading their dating spaces, as it turns out some men who transition to women still prefer sexual relations with women. Lesbians have at least partially been rooted out of their own dating apps.
During the 2020 Floyd kerfuffle, transgender activists notably hijacked many of the Black Lives Matter protests and used that platform to advance their agenda. The overall woke racial program, which isn’t technically “Critical Race Theory” but has been labeled such by the right because they lack a better nomenclature, started to get installed in elementary schools. Transgender ideology came in again as a rider. This small war within the small academic progressive and internet world came to the front door of a huge number of people who had no idea what was going on, and lots of ordinary women on the sidelines of this culture war battle who weren’t paying attention suddenly realized that they were, in fact, TERFs.
Buttressed by larger numbers and using JK Rowling as a rallying point, in 2022 the TERFs have taken back the acronym. They view it as an identity of pride instead of a dangerous label of ridicule and potential physical harm. And as of August, they are now fighting back in public. While the Twitter censorship staff is known to be extremely woke, they simply can’t keep up with the traffic of reactionary TERFs. Even though they are still doing their best to ban the higher profile ones for wrongthink against the tenants of modern woke gender ideology, they can’t stem the tide. The #LGBwithouttheT hashtag in one of the snapshots above is of gay folks, many of which are lesbians, lining up on the TERF side of the battlefield.
To make any predictions in this space, we must look deeper into the motivations of the constituents and take a broad brush look at the numbers.
Culture War Predictions
Somewhere between 20 and 60 percent of human personality is determined by genetics, according to modern scientific estimates. This number may vary depending on the thing being measured, but identical twin studies show twins very often have quite a lot of overlap in quantifiable personality traits, about 50%. Based on this, I think it’s reasonable to presume that the number of people who act out behaviors of moral certainty and self righteous indignation are probably relatively fixed in the human population. In prior decades, these people usually gravitated towards religion as their behavioral outlet, but as religiosity has fallen in the USA more of the righteously indignant have needed to seek out different outlets, and many of them have adopted wokeness. Here’s a highly suspicious, totally unitless, and completely untrustworthy graph to illustrate this concept.
I’m sure someone could potentially put numbers to this, but it would be difficult. I present it here simply to make the case that outside of the very unlikely chance they migrate back to religion, the woke aren’t going anywhere. That’s why the woke program seems to behave so much like a religion, a concept HWFO pioneered in 2018 but has been adopted by many other social thinkers of late. The adherence to “trans women are women” as a mantra makes a tremendous amount of sense through this lens, because within a religious group, people gain social virtue by being more pious than their peers. The best way to signal piety to your religious peers is to be the most vocal about the most absurd claims within the religion. The pseudo-religiously woke are not going to back down in the TERF War, they must stand their ground.
But they are tremendously outnumbered in the real world, and pushing this ideology into public grade schools has alerted the unwoke masses, who are now showing up on Twitter and at school board meetings. The woke are going to lose, and August 2022 is the ramp to this loss.
But again, per the graph above, they are not going to go away. The form this loss takes is going to be very interesting to watch, because the Woke have not, to date, had to resolve any major losses. They do however have a unique-to-them update mechanic to their belief system, and it will be in overdrive in 2023 to stem the tide of this loss. I do not at this time think they will sever their connection to the transgender community, nor to their foundational pillar of “to offend is the greatest sin,” but they will very likely lean heavily into semantic word gymnastics to reframe the narrative in such a way that they can push back. And we may see a splinter group of LGBT+ (yes including T) who default back to the 1990s approach:
Use the pronouns because that’s the polite thing to do, not the biological truth of the matter.
I know there are a lot of people, myself among them, who will gladly call someone by their preferred pronouns to be polite, but chafe at being compelled to do so or being expected to pretend that it reflects biological reality. But I don't know if it's just the "Ts" that are responsible for the militance and pharisaism now associated with the LGBT political identity. The gay pride movement in general seems to demand something that goes well beyond a simple "live and let live" type tolerance for the LGBT lifestyle. I know many gays and lesbians in past generations faced unfair prejudice and harassment, so it's understandable that it would be a political identity, but when is enough enough? The LGBT movement has gone mainstream and has fully captured major institutions and now wields real political and economic power, but as soon as it got power, it abused it. That movement no longer demands simple tolerance, but rather insists that everyone celebrate every form of sexuality and identity falling under the LGBT+ umbrella, not just the "T." The Ts seem to have just pushed the movement over the edge and triggered a growing backlash, but the rest of the movement can often be just as militant, self-righteous, and intolerant of dissenting views.
I wish I had your optimism this is going to go away. with how ingrained it is within our public institutions, and growing by the day, i’m a bit more skeptical.