‘TERF’ isn’t just a slur, it’s hate speech

Last week, a 60-year-old woman was beaten up at Speaker’s Corner by several men. She was there with a group of women, who had chosen the historic corner of Hyde Park as a meeting place, before heading off to a talk called, “What is Gender.” The men who punched and kicked Maria MacLachlan had come to protest the women on account of their interest in feminism and in discussing the way new conversations and legislation around “gender identity” could impact the women’s movement and women’s rights. The protestors did not frame their anger and inflammatory rhetoric in this way, though. Instead, they labelled the women “TERFs” (trans exclusionary radical feminists) — a word that has come to signify a modern witch: to be silenced, threatened, harassed, punched, and — yes — killed.

The idea that feminists who question the notion of “gender identity” should be beaten and murdered has very rapidly become accepted by self-described leftists. We’re not just talking about Twitter eggs, here. Men with large platforms who are publicly associated with Antifa and groups like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) have amplified the “punch TERFs” and “TERFs get the guillotine” message proudly, with the support of their comrades. In reference to The Handmaid’s Tale, many have taken to saying “TERFs get the wall.”

The comparison is a surprisingly (and frighteningly) truthful admission in terms of the intent of these men. “The wall” in The Handmaid’s Tale is where executed bodies are hung, often with placards around their necks that read “Gender Treachery.” The dead bodies serve as a warning to others: do not rebel, do not fight back, do not reject the patriarchal order of things. And this is precisely what these men who use the term “TERF” are saying to women: obey our rule or you will be punished.

Rather than condemning the violence at Speaker’s Corner, numerous trans activists and self-identified leftist men have celebrated and encouraged it.


While some will claim the word “TERF” is neutral, its use demonstrates the opposite. It is not a word that women have claimed for themselves — like “slut,” “cunt,” or “bitch,” “TERF” is a word imposed on women to shut them up, bully them, condemn them, smear them, humiliate them, and dismiss them. But more than that: it is a threat. If I think about the times in my life I have been called these words — cuntbitch, slut — by a man, I have almost always felt the threat of violence behind them. The spitting rage behind those words — the desire to follow through with a punch — is too often present. I have always known these words are used against me as an explicit reminder: you are subordinate. No matter how confident, tough, self-assured, strong, or brave a woman is, these words still put her in her place.

The term, “TERF,” is itself an intentional manipulation, intended to reframe feminist ideas and activism as “exclusionary,” rather than foundational to the women’s liberation movement. In other words, it is an attack on women-centered political organizing and the basic theory that underpins feminist analysis of patriarchy.

For example, those of us called “TERF” are labelled as such for numerous crimes, including:

  • Understanding that women are members of an oppressed class of people (a sex class or caste, as feminists like Kate Millett and Sheila Jeffreys have called it)
  • Challenging the notion of innate or internal gender
  • Having conversations about “gender identity”
  • Questioning whether or not children should begin the process of transitioning
  • Associating with or defending women who have been labelled “TERF”
  • Understanding that the root of women’s oppression and male supremacy is in biological sex
  • Understanding that gender is imposed, and is oppressive/exists to create a hierarchy between men and women.
  • Questioning dogma and mantras like “transwomen are women”
  • Supporting woman-only space
  • Disputing an ideology that claims “male” and “female” are not a material reality

These things are not only not criminal, but are at the root of feminism. In other words, in order to understand how patriarchy works, you must first understand who is a member of the dominant class and who is a member of the subordinate class. You must understand that male violence against women is systemic. You must understand that women are not inherently “feminine,” and that men are not inherently “masculine.” You must be willing to have critical conversations and ask challenging questions about the status quo, about dominant ideology, and about political discourse. You must understand that patriarchy began as a means to control women’s reproductive capacity, and that, therefore, women’s biology is very much central to their status as “less than.” You must understand that feminism is a woman-centered movement, and that women have the right to meet and to organize amongst themselves, without members of the oppressor class (men), to advocate toward their own liberation.

What people are saying when they say “TERF” is “feminist.” It is “uppity woman.” What they mean when they say “exclusionary” is not, as is often claimed, “exclusive of trans-identified people,” but “exclusive of males.” Gender non-conformity is welcomed in feminism — feminism is about not conforming to gender norms. If we were interested in conforming, we would, as is often suggested to us, sit down and shut up.

While “TERF” has always been a slur, what has become clear of late is that it is no longer just that: it is hate speech.

Deborah Cameron, a feminist linguist and professor in language and communication at Oxford, explains that there are key questions we must ask to determine whether a term constitutes a slur, such as:

  • Has the term been imposed or has it been adopted voluntarily by the group the term has been applied to?
  • Is the word commonly understood to convey hatred or contempt?
  • Does the word have a neutral counterpart which denotes the same group without conveying hatred/contempt?
  • Do the people the word is applied to regard it as a slur?

Considering the answers to these questions — that, yes, the term has been imposed on feminists, it is always understood as pejorative, it does have a neutral counterpart (i.e. one could just use the term “feminist”), and feminists have consistently stated that the term is a slur — “TERF” is undoubtedly that. Considering that women are the primary target of this slur and that it is commonly attached to threats of (and, as of late, real-life) violence, there is something more we must now contend with.

Following the violent incident at Speaker’s Corner (which was no accident — one of the perpetrators had publicly expressed his intention to “fuck some terfs up”), I have received hundreds of death threats from men online. I’m not alone, either. Any woman who challenged men’s celebration or defense of the violence at Speaker’s Corner became a target. All of these threats have been attached to the term, “TERF.” Feminists have been labelled in this way specifically to dehumanize them, to spread outrageous lies about their politics (claiming feminists want to kill trans-identified people or that they advocate genocide), to reframe them as oppressors of males who identify as gender non-conforming, and to paint them, generally, as evil witches, therefore deserving of violence.

Proliferating lies about and dehumanizing an oppressed group of people in order to justify abuse is a longtime strategy of racists and xenophobes. Hitler used these tools to commit genocide against the Jews. Indeed, propaganda was a key tool of the Nazis in their efforts to spread antisemitism, quell dissent, and turn people against one another. German newspapers printed cartoons and ads depicting antisemitic images and messages.

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it,” was Hilter’s guiding mantra. He trusted that people wouldn’t think for themselves and would simply act out of fear or intellectual laziness, jumping on bandwagons without thoroughly questioning the purpose and foundation of those bandwagons. The Holocaust was successful because the public went along with it — because individuals believed the myths and lies proliferated by the Nazis, and because they didn’t stand up, think critically, or push back.

While hate speech laws differ from place to place (and can be blurry), as a general rule, making statements intended to expose people to hatred or violence, or that advocate genocide, constitute hate speech.

Because feminists who challenge gender identity ideology are often (strategically) accused of advocating genocide, let’s be clear: “genocide” does not mean arguing that biological sex is a real thing, challenging the idea that femininity and masculinity are innate, or suggesting certain spaces should be for women and girls alone. What genocide does mean is: killing members of an identifiable group or deliberately inflicting conditions of life aimed to bring about the physical destruction of an identifiable group.

In other words, suggesting that feminists should all be destroyed, fired from their jobs, forced into homelessness, harassed, silenced, removed from society, abused, and sent to the Gulag.

Under the law, advocating or promoting genocide is an indictable offence. Likewise, those who promote hatred against an identifiable group or communicate statements in public that incite hatred or violence against an identifiable group that are likely to lead to a breach of the peace (i.e. for example: what happened at Speaker’s Corner) are guilty of an indictable offence.

But these laws are hard to enforce. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. We should not be charging people willy-nilly for things they say on Twitter. What we most certainly should be doing is holding men to account for inciting violence against women and holding media and other institutions to account for normalizing hate speech.

So, beyond the law, let’s talk about accountability. When the media normalizes hate speech, they become culpable. A publication would not use the n-word to describe a black person or the word “kike” to describe a Jewish person. This is because we know that these terms reinforce racism and justify discrimination and/or abuse against particular groups of people who have been historically and systemically oppressed. When the media, institutions, and authorities become aware that a particular term is being used to incite violence against women, it is their responsibility to condemn or simply refrain from encouraging the use of that language.

And yet we have seen various media outlets using the term uncritically, of late.

The fact that the vast majority of those connecting the word “TERF” to threats of violence, death, and genocide are men is notable. The word has been offered up to those who identify as leftists, who have been, on some level, prevented from making misogynistic statements publicly or otherwise advocating violence against women. Their “progressive” credentials meant that they had to maintain a facade of political correctness. But because women labelled “TERF” have been compared to Nazis and bigots, and because trans activism claims to be allied with the interests of the marginalized (despite its overt anti-feminism and individualist ideology), these leftist men have a socially acceptable excuse. Indeed, they seem to revel in it. It’s as if they were given the green light to scream “bitch” (or perhaps “witch” would be more accurate, considering the targeting of specific unruly women to “punch”… or burn…) over and over again, cheered on by their comrades.

If “TERF” were a term that conveyed something purposeful, accurate, or useful, beyond simply smearing, silencing, insulting, discriminating against, or inciting violence, it could perhaps be considered neutral or harmless. But because the term itself is politically dishonest and misrepresentative, and because its intent is to vilify, disparage, and intimidate, as well as to incite and justify violence against women, it is dangerous and indeed qualifies as a form of hate speech. While women have tried to point out that this would be the end result of “TERF” before, they were, as usual, dismissed. We now have undeniable proof that painting women with this brush leads to real, physical violence. If you didn’t believe us before, you now have no excuse.

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.