When I saw that Liberal candidate for Warringah and anti-trans women in sport campaigner Katherine Deves had a history of extreme, online transphobic comments, I wasn’t surprised. That’s because I recently spent several weeks observing multiple online spaces for women who don’t believe trans women are women.
These women fit into a branch of feminism called trans exclusionary, or “gender critical”, radical feminism (also referred to online as TERFs).
Born out of radical feminism in the 1970s, the movement persists online, where it has developed into a movement preoccupied with transgender people — to the exclusion of almost any other subject or area of concern.
Before I began researching, I suspected that the radical feminist rhetoric I was occasionally seeing on Twitter was only the tip of the iceberg, and not representative of the younger cohort of radical feminists who preferred other platforms like TikTok and Discord.
Once I started looking, I found young women talking about women’s sports, women’s bathrooms, women’s changing rooms, lesbians being forced to date trans women, and non-binary identities not being real. I saw users praising plans to legislate which bathrooms trans people can and can’t use, and I saw people praising Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s decision to order child welfare officials to investigate parents who were allowing their children to receive gender-affirming care.
I observed spaces on online platforms Twitter, TikTok, Giggle, Spinster, Ovarit and Discord. Twitter, TikTok and Discord are mainstream platforms you’re probably familiar with. The other three are less widely known, for good reason: they’re platforms created by radical feminists specifically to talk about things that would see (and have seen) them expelled from other platforms.
Ovarit was created in 2020 in direct response to Reddit’s crackdown on hateful subreddits, which saw r/GenderCritical and any associated subreddits removed from the site for violating its rules against promoting hate.
The “girls only” app, Giggle, was launched by Australian Sall Grover in 2019, and made headlines in 2020 because of its verification process: you’re required to submit a selfie so that the app can determine that you’re female. Last month, a complaint was filed against Giggle with the Australian Human Rights Commission in regards to their ban on transgender women.
Spinster, billed as a radical feminist-friendly alternative to Twitter, was created by MK Fain in 2019. Popular users of Spinster include Graham Linehan and Meghan Murphy, both of whom have been banned from Twitter for violating the platform’s rules against posting hateful speech. (The UK-based Linehan posted in support of Deves on his Substack over the weekend, encouraging his readers to engage with her critics on Twitter).
It was on Discord, an instant-messaging app initially made popular by gamers, that I encountered the most hateful content: users rating transgender women’s profiles on dating apps and sharing fantasies about raping and murdering men and transgender people. I also encountered racist and anti-immigration rhetoric, particularly against Muslims, whom they see as particularly patriarchal and harmful to the cause of women’s rights.
I found that the quality of discourse on more visible platforms such as Twitter and TikTok was worse than I’d previously thought. Rather than censor themselves entirely, users had instead become more adept at getting around filters and censorship, i.e. by simply making new accounts whenever theirs were removed for violating community guidelines, or by making use of “Algospeak“, or by using obscure lingo that moderators with little knowledge of the radical feminist community would have scant hope of parsing, such as “TIM” for “trans-identified male” (in other words, transgender women), TRA for “trans rights activist”, or the train and knee emojis paired together to represent a common transphobic slur.
This is the environment that Deves would have found herself in when she was active on Twitter. As a cofounder of Save Women’s Sport Australasia who claims to have worked with Senator Claire Chandler on legislation that would see trans women excluded from women’s sports, Deves is precisely the kind of online culture warrior I encountered time and time again.
If the number of tweets about trans people that have been unearthed from Deves’ now-defunct Twitter account seems high, it shouldn’t; the one thing that stood out to me was that the more time people spent in these spaces, the more they focused on trans people while other causes fell to the wayside. Indeed, for many so-called feminists who would typically consider themselves centrist or left-wing, transphobia served as a good enough reason to celebrate the work of conservatives like Chandler or Deves, or like Texas’ Greg Abbott.
Cam Wilson pointed out that Deves’ biography on the Liberal Party website mentioned her work as a “women’s advocate”, but “if there’s another aspect of her work in this area it’s certainly not public, nor has she advertised it”. Women like Deves believe that arguing against the inclusion of transgender people in public life is enough to be the sum total of their activism; concerns like reproductive health or the wage gap are consistently ignored while they engage in their tenth conversation that day about a hypothetical trans person using the changing room at their local pool.