SERF and TERF Wars



I have fond memories of sitting around comparing breasts. It was a slow day. One of the women had just returned with her brand new Bangkok boobies. She was whakawahine and a private worker. We were comparing her breasts with some local implants a parlour girl had purchased at a far greater cost. Then one of the volunteers had to get out her small soft, hormone induced tiny titties.  It was a hysterically funny conversation. It is only now in hindsight I realised how privileged and truly lucky I was to be included in those conversations. Not everyone has this kind of luck.

When I started work at the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective I didn’t know what to call anyone. The closest I had come to someone transgendered was watching the artists at Alfie’s Night Club and watching the Crying Game. I saw Georgina Beyer preform. She was so stunning. I was transfixed. Not only did I not know my trans apart, I also didn’t know  whakawahine from takātapui, from a fa’afafini, my FTM’s or my MTF’s and I was always missing a letter with my LBGTQI.  But then I asked. No one gave me shit for being ill-informed . They answered my questions. Early on in the piece, sensing my awkwardness, one of the women gave the ‘if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, then call it a duck’ speech.

Not many people get to sit around day after day, in a job where you are being paid to talk about sex with sex workers, and ask those questions. I mean all those questions from the purely banal and salacious ; do you still have a penis, does it get hard, where do you keep it, where is it right now, what do you wear when you go home, is your boyfriend gay etc? The work related questions; who are your clients (omg I know him), what services do you provide, and do they know? Then later, the longer, more meaningful conversations around transitioning, how it feels to be in the wrong body and the importance of living life as who you really are.  

But if you don’t work at sex workers drop in centre, if you aren’t someone who is at ease taking about sex, sexuality and gender, and if you never meet any transgender people, how are you supposed to learn stuff. Let’s be honest I know transgender people now in my community and like most people they would be shocked and appalled if you asked them any of these questions. And rightly so! This is deeply personal and private stuff!

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Which is where things get tricky. Because if you can’t ask questions and if you can’t get information how do you break down the ignorance, stigma and discrimination? Recently I have realised how dangerous it is, especially on social media, to ask questions. Almost any question regarding any issue relating to gender gets called out and labelled trans-phobia, or if you are feminist the risk of also being labelled a TERF (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist).

Let me be clear. Hate speech and abuse is never acceptable. There is a difference between ignorance and being ignorant. Sometimes it is a fine line.

But, if you don’t know any people that are transgender, if you aren’t familiar with the terminology let alone ever needed to use the correct personal pro-nouns but you do have a history that includes sexual abuse and violence at the hands of men, issues like transferring transgender women to a women’s prison is going to raise questions.

By the same token if you are a feminist, who has read both Germaine Greer and Judith Butler you will have some questions. Questions aren’t bad. If they are asked genuinely, without the intent to cause harm, why should they not be raised? How does creating an environment of fear and intimidation help educate and challenge the binary, and change the narrative? If you want to alter the discourse, don’t you have to welcome the discursive?

Last week I read an article about exclusionary activism. I enjoyed it a great deal. In many ways it is the more sophisticated version of this blog. In it the author talks about the need to ‘call people in’ not just ‘call people out’. This practice of online shaming, twitter pile ons and bullying has become a practice I’m starting to see as not only reprehensible but also destructive to many causes. When a group starts shouting down any and all opposition and disengaging in dialogue then what separates them from the moralising ranting of the right wing conservatives who wish to ban books?

I am not transgender. I am a cis-gender women, who can never understand that journey.  I can only empathise wholeheartedly on how important it is to live your life as the person you are and not as someone else’s ideal.  Many times at different points in my life I have had to hide aspects of my life. Even recently, on completion of my degree while about to go job hunting people suggested I leave things off my CV. Once you have made the choice to live as honestly and as authentically (for want of a better word) as you can, there is no putting that cat back in the box. Nor would I ever encourage anyone to.  

I know some voices are louder. They get more air time and they are taken more seriously. The voices of the minority, the oppressed and the marginalised still get shouted down. Yet when we are persistent, it is possible in New Zealand to be heard. We have that freedom and when we choose to engage, we have the ability to affect change. If your voice is not loud and is not heard sometimes I think the most important thing is working out how to use that voice effectively. To be an effective activist is one of the skills they never teach you at Uni. On Campaign Bootcamps one of those skills is that you need a thick skin. It also helps if you have a great support network.

Some of the most well intentioned people have asked me the most truly hurtful and insensitive questions.

Meanwhile, back on Twitter, the TERF wars have reignited. This debate is not new. It has been discussed and debated for over forty years. I do not share the views of those feminists nor do I consider myself transphobic but I am familiar with the arguments and I am familiar with some of the feminists that are most vocal. Perhaps not surprisingly they were vocal, and are still vocal on the rights of sex workers. They aren’t just TERFS but also SERF’s, Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminists, (I just made that up). Here in Aotearoa many managed to move their position just enough to support decimalisation but some of the questions they asked during the process remain with me. They were good questions. I have not resolved all of them. They were the women who challenged me on the question of what it means to have choice.

Trans women should not be incarcerated in men prisons. That is simple. However I support other women to be free to discuss how they would react to having a transgender women enter a women’s facility will impact on that environment. As I said before, for women who have not encountered transgender women, or for women who for whatever their reasons, do not perceive transgender women to be women, are entitled to discuss the issues as they perceive them. What to us may be perception, is their reality. A women’s prison is a finely balanced hierarchal culture. I know this. It doesn’t take much to unsettle the culture. There are some incredibly vulnerable women incarcerated. There are many women in society in general that are scared, and for good reason, of men.  Talking about this is not transphobic. I would argue that closing the conversation down is. Sharing the experience that many trans women have had at the hands of men may only go some of the way to alleviating that fear. For many it will take more.

In regard to the feminist debates, I confess to be fascinated by the discussion. My current position is that I believe Beauvoir, “that one is not born a woman.” I also buy into Butler,  that all gender is performativity. I love Wittig, and the idea that woman is a class of domestic worker. All of this theory leads to a place where all gender is construct. Yet if all is construct, then what is it that defines us as women? Is it is as simple as identity, are we sure there is nothing more? What is it that drives the need of transgender or cis women to insist they are women? Isn’t this the question that drives that TERF wars? Does asking that make me a TERF?

The first short story I wrote that got published is about a friend from K’rd. It is based on a real friendship with a woman called Georgie. I remember one day saying to her that I had a really sore stomach, bad cramps, “You know. That time of the month.” She laughed and replied “No. I don’t get periods you idiot.” We laughed. After all my awkwardness and all my questions here I was only six months later and I had forgotten.  

Debate is healthy. Public discussion and the ability to engage and challenge people’s bias and bigotry is a crucial part of eliminating ignorance. People should be encouraged to ask questions. If you subscribe to the view that there are no stupid questions, every question becomes a chance to engage. If you know the answers you won’t be scared of the debate, you will welcome it and embrace it.

The debate around decriminalising sex work culminated in one moment for me and a picture that made the front page of the Herald. I was in the public gallery when the result of the vote was announced. While we hugged and cheered above, below, Georgina Beyer hugged Tim Barnett below. When Georgina was dancing and I was still working nights. I doubt either of us could have imagined this.  We live in a small country where the most unlikely people can achieve the most unlikely things. Let us celebrate that by being a place where discussion is welcome.


  1. Aside from the numerous other spelling/grammar mistakes in this piece, transgendered is not a word – it’s transgender. Perhaps a bit more research before publication should be considered.

    • @ James. On behalf of Kate Dickie-Davis let me say; Ooooooh Terribly sorry Mr Erudite . Pompous little snipe are you?
      How big a bit would you like ? A big bit ? A little bit? An itty bit?
      Offended because some words were challenging to your imagination ? If someone said ‘ Go jump off a cliff ‘ would you? You ignored a good heart powered by best intentions to show us all how good a speller you are. Well done Chap . Now, off to poke fun at disabled people ?

      Great Posthole Kate.

    • I apologise for the spelling & grammatical errors. I have asked Martyn to correct them or take the post down.

      • @Kate – I apologise for hassling the spelling etc, that was cheap and more a comment on the editor than you.

        My main problem with the article was that it was published in the aftermath of a trans woman being raped in a men’s prison. But I chose to focus on one small thing because the rest was just too much to deal with at the time.

        It’s good to have discussions, I agree. But the timing of this is really off.

  2. Beautiful piece, Kate. it made me think about my own reactions and areas of ignorance, and reminded me to pause before diving in with an opinion. And isn’t it wonderful that English grammar (as in every language’s grammar) is so creative we can make whatever words we need to describe things that are waiting to be said.

  3. Here’s how you sound, Katie:

    “I think learnt a lot by asking vulnerable trans women really inappropriate questions so I think everyone should be allowed to. Also it’s okay for cis women to be transmisogynists.”

    Truthfully, it’s obvious you didn’t learn much at all.

    • I didn’t get that impression. I think what she is saying is there needs to be channels for people to ask these kinds of questions without immediately been accused of bigotry and having all manner or labels put on them, such as “trans misogyny” as you put it.

  4. Interesting perspective from Ada, if you are working at the Collective then you are probably talking with people who are more open about sex. Asking questions is not insulting, demanding or dismissing the answer is! I would not go and ask some one that I did not know really well questions about their orientation nor I think would Katie. Had to google cis woman as had never heard of it, also googled transmisogynists – not sure what part of the definition referred to Katie.

  5. I think I learnt a lot Ada, and you have to realise talking about sex with sex workers is part of the gig. It was & is a specific environment. I also realise I have been privileged to share my life with an awesom and diverse group of people.

    I don’t think it’s cool to ask inappropriate questions about sexuality. But if you don’t know about gender, or mental illness, or sexuality, or sex work, or being a damn Mason, how do you get to know?

    No campaigns to change how we treat marginalised groups have been fought without people having to answer stupid, rude & offensive questions. People still ask me if I had a drug addiction, if someone in a gang forced me into it, if I was sexually abused….etc. People encourage me not to talk about it, or write about it. I should just ‘get over it’. Some people assume I’m some skanky ho who is going to jump their husband.
    As it happens when I married, l married an ex gang member. Good friends, close friends, asked if he was hitting me.

    I’m not a TERF. I’m actually more of a material feminist. I’m more concerned with no gender that which gender. I’m interested in challenging the idea of the binary. Why only two gender, if gender is only construct.

    Primarily, I am a person first, then a feminist. As it concerns women, isn’t this a feminist issue?

  6. You may say you’re not a TERF but quite a few people are hurling that exact insult at you for this article. Women are maligned every day for far less than what you’re saying here. Perhaps you will start to learn now how inherently reactionary, authoritative and misogynistic trans ideology is.

  7. good try Kate, this is a traditionally difficult area of politics–where the pointy end of oppression meets those that are trying to be supportive of others struggles

    where people first encounter exploitation and oppression is most often something to do with “them” so why wouldn’t they take it personally? age, sex, orientation, ethnicity, relationship status, colonised, targeted by cops etc. often the first sharp experience makes the perpetrator the main enemy–white people, straight people, cops, and even for some–employers!

    in a class society, class status and attendant exploitation is one thing everyone experiences consciously or not, a hundred different categorisations of individuals place in the genderscape does not negate that, but class conscious people have to try and figuratively walk in everyone else’s shoes to avoid marginalising the already marginalised further

    gay people required “straight” (it was almost binary back then!) people’s support back in the 80s to achieve “homosexual law reform” and recently for marriage equality, but what parliament gives, it can also take away, people have to fight and re-fight for their rights irrespective of the latest labels

  8. my Neighbours safety’s is more important than my feelings. transgender people deserve their safety and dignity.
    you wouldn’t put a sixteen year old person in double bunking with a pedophile. (ok Serco would, but they are evil)

    • In all honesty Gabrielle I have no idea what your point is.

      The truth is when it comes to prison activism I’m actually not a reformist. I’m an abolitionist. No one belongs in jail. They don’t work.

      But for now within the current regime, I have made my position clear.

      • I’m writing in the wrong comments section, but I find with most issues especially with the prison incident safety outweighs sensibility. Intil gender fluid wings are created (giant can of worms here) transgender people are safer in women’s prison
        (f-m as well)

  9. I enjoyed your piece. I would ignore the grammar pedants. Transgender people should be in prisons appropriate for their own gender identity or where they feel safe. It is not often that people have the opportunity to peek into that world like you do. Thanks for sharing

  10. The biggest issue i have with “transwomen” is the looseness of the definition.

    Most people think it refers to those people who were born male, but now take hormones have surgery and try and fit in as women.

    That is not accurate, though. The vast majority of trans ‘women’ are men, who use their male sexual organs for pleasure and who like to play a female gender role.

    These people do NOT belong in a woman’s prison, although clearly they would not be safe in a man’s prison, due to the prevalence of male violence against non-gender conforming males.

    Putting these physically male prisoners in with women is disgraceful, and places the emotional demands of men above the rights to safety of women.

    People who are mtf TG commit male pattern violence at the same rates as men, not as women.

    We need to be very very careful in our lawmaking, to make sure the needed rights for transwomen who really ARE women are protected, whilst not opening up female spaces to abuse by men.

    We increasingly see TG men who identify as women disrupting female spaces, not integrating, Recent events in auckland – the loss of the vagina cupcake day – highlight this. When did it stop being OK for women to talk about their anatomy amongst other women? Only since we allowed male, penis-identified people to claim female identity. Instead of integrating, joining in, and celebrating with their sisters, these ‘women’ instead broke and destroyed.

    I do not think it is ok for men to demand instant acceptance as women, simply because they’ve ‘self identified’. As the author said, “it it walks like a duck…” Well, increasingly trans men who identify as women walk like men, talk like men, engage in sexual intercourse with women, like men. So why should we call them anything other than men?

    In the states, a female sports team lost access to their changing room, as a self-declared perverted BDSM man with penis who called himself female was granted a legal right to strip naked and watch the young girls change, despite parent’s objections. How can that be oK in any sane world?

    Let’s not get lost in our race to embrace liberal ideas. Yes, women born in male bodies need protection and support in their journeys to physical correction. At the same time, women should not be forced to open their safe spaces to men who identify as women, but actually like and use their penises.

    We need gatekeepers.

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