TERF: Where the term comes from

According to TERFs, the term TERF is a slur. Moreover, they assert that it is insulting, hyperbolic, misleading, and ultimately defamatory.

Allen actually calls for more people to recognize radical feminists as a hate group and then pointedly adopts the term Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist (TERF) to refer to them throughout the article. Make no mistake, this is a slur. TERF is not meant to be explanatory, but insulting. These characterizations are hyperbolic, misleading, and ultimately defamatory. They do nothing but escalate the vitriol and fail to advance the conversation in any way.

Elizabeth Hungerford (2013), TERF attorney and opinion leader

From TERF blog, "When Women Were Warriors"
From TERF blog, “When Women Were Warriors” (2012)

And, to drive home the point, TERF attorney, lecturer and opinion leader Cathy Brennan asserts:


So, there’s the TERF rhetoric about the term.

Here’s some objective truths about the term:

  • The term was popularized by a cisgender feminist women for use in the feminist community
  • The term is fairly young, originating in 2008
  • The term’s use was encouraged to honor RadFems who felt their movement was being subsumed by an anti-trans hate group. Or, as the feminsts who popularized it said back in 2008:
8/17/2008, "sfsdffs"
8/17/2008, “implicitly aligning all radfems with the trans-exclusionary radfem (TERF) activists, which I resent”

A few days later, she clarified her position:

Many many radical feminists are trans* accepting and often are active allies. It’s just a small minority who are very vocally trans-exclusionary, particularly online.

Grammatically, the “trans-exclusionary” placed before “radical feminist in the TERF acronym means that it modifies “radical feminist”, describing a subset. Just the way that the term Italian-American doesn’t mean that all Americans are ethnically Italian, it’s just describing a subset of Americans.

TigTog, 8/20/2008

And from there, the term spread to other feminist blogs:

Unapologetically Female (2008)

The conversation is illuminating:


Thank you for the praise for my post, Tracey. I just wish that this post of yours had a different title and introductory sentence – I’m calling out the trans-exclusionary radfems (TERFs), and I certainly don’t assume that all radfems agree with them. I have a pretty strong radical streak myself after all, and I certainly don’t agree with them.



Point well taken, tigtog. I actually did think twice about that title before I posted this, and I see now that I probably should have followed my instincts. I’ll change it now.



Thanks for the prompt response. I’ve added a clause to my post as well to make this clearer right from the introductory paragraphs.

Thanks too for the link to the post at Womanist Musings – that’s a wonderful post.

Please feel free to adopt and spread the TERF acronym, by the way, if it appeals to you.


Oh, I see you’ve already leapt upon TERF – excellent.



No problem — thank you for pointing it out that it wasn’t clear that I don’t mean all radical feminists. I didn’t want for it to come off that way or to make it sound like that’s what you were saying.

And I loved “TERF”. I was having a hard time finding a way to make that distinction, but that word works perfectly. Thanks again.

The FinallyFeminism101 blog (2008)
Feministe (2013)



Article written by

Cristan Williams is a trans historian and pioneer in addressing the practical needs of the transgender community. She started the first trans homeless shelter and co-founded the first federally funded trans-only homeless program, pioneered affordable health care for trans people in the Houston area, won the right for trans people to change their gender on Texas ID prior to surgery, started numerous trans social service programs and founded the Transgender Center as well as the Transgender Archives. Cristan is the editor at TransAdvocate.com, chairs the City of Houston HIV Prevention Planning Group, is the jurisdictional representative to the Urban Coalition for HIV/AIDS Prevention Services (UCHAPS), serves on the national steering body for UCHAPS and is the Executive Director of the Transgender Foundation of America.

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