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Cambridge's transgender TERF wars have gone too far

14 October 2021

8:45 PM

14 October 2021

8:45 PM

What is a witch? How do we spot witches? And how might we drum up the courage to talk to a witch? Cambridge Students’ Union Women’s Campaign has the answers.

Their new pamphlet, How to Spot TERF Ideology, doesn’t call these people witches, of course. It calls them TERFs – but the sentiment is much the same. Women with minds of their own, experience of life, and the audacity to speak up for their rights are being subjected to appalling campaigns of intimidation and abuse. The TERF (which stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist) hunts are real and they are happening now. The baying mobs might not be demanding heads, but they appear to be on a mission to trash reputations and livelihoods.

It’s easy to ridicule Cambridge SU’s pamphlet as the work of naïve students who haven’t yet faced the harsh realities of life. We are told that TERFs believe in ‘sex-based rights’, ‘LGB rights’, and ‘protecting women and girls’. Are these really things to condemn someone for?

On the same page, TERFs are also condemned as having ‘a conservative, binary, essentialist conception of sex as the be-all-end-all, and a deep hatred for trans women, couched in the language of feminism and feminist theory.’


Yes, this is nonsense, but it is also terrifying. Our universities are being caught up in a frenzy. While political leaders cower – too scared to define the word woman, or declare that only women have cervixes– female academics have become lightning rods for hate and fury.

Professor Selina Todd needed bodyguardsat Oxford University, while professors Rosa Freedman and Jo Phoenix were threatened with violence, disinvited from speaking and even blacklisted. This week, Professor Kathleen Stock faced a brutal and vicious campaign in her own workplace. Sinister leaflets announced: ‘Fire Kathleen Stock. Otherwise you’ll see us around.’

Let’s be clear what is going on here: none of the women I have mentioned are transphobic; they just don’t think that transwomen are women. I don’t either: we are the opposite sex to women and the two sexes are different. The reasoning for this is transparent and simple, but students are being instructed to avoid discussion and debate. The Cambridge Student Union publication proves this point. ‘How to talk to TERFs online?,’ it asks. ‘The key advice is don’t’:

‘Arguing with TERFs online means that you’ll be bringing transphobia into the timeline of your trans friends and followers, who won’t want to see that.’

But for any students brave enough to engage with TERFs, shame is a powerful tool, as are smears:

‘When talking to TERFs in person…it may also be worth bringing up that TERFs (particularly the famous ones who figurehead the movement) spend a lot of time working with the far-right.

Unfortunately, it seems, there was no space in the Cambridge guide to back this point up.

At best, How to Spot TERF ideology is a confused mess. But while it is tempting to trivialise this shameful pamphlet, the reality for those condemned on campus and elsewhere as TERFs is grave. Courageous women are being demonised and hounded from their livelihoods, for doing what the Cambridge Students’ Union Women’s Campaign fails to do: speak up for for all women, whatever their beliefs.

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