Written by Allison Newey
Edited by: Giulia Ripamonti


The 21st century has witnessed historic advancements in international gay rights, especially in Western countries. Across the globe, governments increasingly pass legislation that legalises same-sex marriage, protects queer people from work-based discrimination, and criminalises homophobic hate crimes. However, these strides for gay rights are not paralleled in the transgender rights movement.

Compared to the rest of the LGBTQ+ community, transgender rights, healthcare, and protections are significantly lacking, even in the most ‘progressive’ and ‘liberal’ Western nations. Although transphobic rhetoric has spread consistently across several Western democracies, the United Kingdom, in particular, has experienced an unprecedented wave of transphobia in both the public and private sectors, and both government and civil society. Indeed, transgender individuals, especially transgender women, are increasingly victimised and targeted by transphobic acts of violence and ‘lynchings’. Additionally, LGBTQ+ activists have dubbed the UK as ‘TERF Island’, referring to the increasing movement of trans-exclusionary radical feminism (Baska, 2021)  – also known as ‘TERFism’ or the ‘TERF’ movement. This movement showcases how transphobia is a pervasive issue within the LGBTQ+ community itself, as seen through the recent development of trans-exclusionary queer organisations. This paper will analyse the increase of transphobia in the UK and discuss its implications for human rights. Specifically, the article will address how anti-transgender rhetoric, legislation, and hate crimes normalises human rights abuses against minority groups.


To begin with, this essay will establish concrete definitions for the elusive new terms, ‘TERF’ and ‘TERFism’, as well as transphobia more generally. ‘TERF’ is an acronym for the rather self-explanatory label ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminist’. These individuals subscribe to “a branch of feminism whose ideological beliefs hinge on the idea that sex is biological and fixed, rejecting the idea of socially constructed gender” (Hotine, 2021, pp. 1). TERFs inaccurately maintain that the only weapon used to discriminate against cisgender women is their female biology. This belief ignores the social biases, gender roles, and patriarchal interpretations of the female body, which relegate women to the roles of mother and caregiver. TERFs also base their ideology on the assumption that biological sex is ‘fixed’ and neatly stored into the binary categories of ‘men’ and ‘women’ — mostly through the inspection of genitalia (Hotine, 2021, pp. 2-3). In actuality, biological sex is incredibly variable and dependent on several factors, including hormone levels and chromosome patterns. Despite these flawed arguments, TERFs imply that transgender women are not, and never will be, ‘real’ women due to biological differences (Horbury and Yao, 2020, pp. 2). 

This paper will examine the increasing transphobic rhetoric across the UK by analysing three metrics — legislation, hate crimes, and ideology. In the subsequent analysis and discussion, the first category includes anti-transgender legislation, court rulings, and governmental inaction to protect the transgender community. The second category consists of targeted acts of intimidation and discrimination against transgender individuals, transphobic language, terrorism and violence, and ‘lynchings’ or killing of transgender people. Finally, the ideological metric will serve to analyse the prominence of ‘TERFism’ in popular culture and civil society, as well as the fear-mongering tactics used by TERFs.


Before discussing the implications and impacts of anti-transgender rhetoric, it is important to first establish a brief history of transgender rights and the anti-transgender movement in the UK. Transgender individuals have long existed in the UK, as some of the earliest documented instances of gender non-confirming or ‘cross-dressing’ individuals are from the early 1400s and continue through the 18th and 19th centuries (Historic England, n.d). Additionally, one of the earliest documented gender reassignment surgeries in the world took place at a hospital in Basingstoke, England, in the 1940s; gender transitions through both hormones and surgeries continued in the UK for decades after (Historic England, n.d). With the emergence of the modern-day gay rights movement in the mid-to-late 20th century, transgender individuals across the UK began lobbying and advocating for legal and civil rights. For example, the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled in P v. S and Cornwall County Council that the scope of gender equality and gender-based discrimination includes discrimination against transgender individuals (P v. S and Cornwall County Council, 1996; Inner Temple Library, 2018). Additionally, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in Goodwin v. United Kingdom (2002) that the UK government must respect the freedoms and rights of transgender individuals, stating that “in the twenty-first century the right of transsexuals to personal development and to physical and moral security […] cannot be regarded as a matter of controversy” (para. 90). The provisions included legal recognition of their chosen gender identity, marriage to individuals of the opposite gender, and prevention of harassment after transitioning through hormones or surgery (Nevrkla, 2018). These notable court cases were used as precedents for litigation against workplace discrimination, removed obstacles to marriage and divorce, and paved the way for gender equality for the transgender community.


Legislative Restrictions and Legal Attacks

Although the legal successes of the 20th century provide some protections, transgender security and support are still not guaranteed at the local, national, and international levels. The aforementioned legal milestones have been gradually repealed and curtailed by the Conservative Government in the past decade (Dodds, 2023). For example, when it comes to workplace discrimination, one in seven transgender people in the UK has been turned away from general practitioners because they were trans (Factora, 2023). In addition, the Conservative government has placed further legal barriers on transgender access to gender-affirming healthcare. For example, all UK citizens over the age of 18 who wish to legally transition must apply to a gender recognition panel and obtain a medical diagnosis of gender dysmorphia (McDonald, 2023). These restrictions are even more strict for transgender youth, especially as gender identity clinics for children and young people are frequently targeted and defunded by the government (Pritilata, 2022). 

Another example of legislative transphobia was Boris Johnson’s decision to exclude transgender protections in a legislative ban on conversion therapy in early 2022. Johnson’s government released a statement on 4 April 2022, claiming that protections for transgender individuals in the conversion therapy ban were too “legally complex” (Baska, 2022). This outright exclusion is highly problematic because transgender individuals, specifically transgender people of color, are subjected to conversion therapy at higher rates than other LGBTQ+ individuals in the UK (Government Equalities Office, 2018). 

Transphobic Hate Crimes

Although racist and homophobic hate crimes have decreased in the UK, transphobic hate crimes and hate speech have increased by 11% from 2022 to 2023 (UK Home Office, 2023). The startling rise in transphobic violence in the UK came to a head in February 2023, when English transgender teenager Brianna Ghey was fatally stabbed by two classmates. The public quickly condemned the murder as a hate crime, but other legal barriers also caused a public outcry. Under the unreformed Gender Recognition Act  – also known as the GRA – Ghey’s death certificate would misgender and deadname her. Numerous vigils and protests were held across the UK and Europe, although some were infiltrated and attacked by anti-gay and anti-transgender counter-protesters (Rodriguez, 2023).

Although Ghey’s murder took place a year ago, transphobic hate crimes are still rampant across the UK. As recently as 13 February 2024, a teenage transgender girl was subjected to slurs and stabbed several times while at a roller-skating party in Northwest London (Kirk, 2024). According to a 2018 report by Stonewall, a UK-based LGBTQ+ rights organisation, over 40% of transgender people experienced a hate crime or hate speech because of their gender identity (Montiel-McCann, 2023). Additionally, one in eight transgender employees in the UK experienced physical attacks by colleagues or customers, and over a third of transgender university students in the UK experienced negative, transphobic comments and behaviour from higher education staff (Bachmann and Gooch, 2018). Therefore, anti-transgender violence and hate speech have drastically risen in the past decade, and remain pervasive across the UK.

The Rise of TERFism and Transphobic Rhetoric

Anti-transgender rhetoric and ideology rapidly spread across the UK media in 2016, when proposed reforms of the GRA included clauses for self-declaration. Consequently, prominent UK news outlets such as The Mail, the Telegraph, the Guardian, and BBC News perpetuated transphobic notions of transgender individuals ‘abusing’ a reformed GRA (Snow, 2021). The fear-mongering, specifically, depicts transgender women as predatory in single-sex spaces, such as locker rooms and public toilets. TERFism also gained widespread media attention in the UK in June 2020 after Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling released a series of controversial tweets expressing her bio-essentialist views on gender and womanhood: “If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased. I know and love trans people, but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives.” 

Rowling has also publicly questioned hormone therapy for young transgender individuals on Twitter (now X), claiming that the use of hormones was actually “a new kind of conversion therapy for young gay people” (Gardner, 2023). These statements vilify the transgender community, depict them as malicious ‘groomers’ for young people, and delegitimise efforts for transgender youth to receive adequate, gender-affirming healthcare.

TERFism is also gaining popularity among the LGBTQ+ community itself, as evidenced by the emergence of the trans-exclusionary LGB Alliance. Formed in 2019, this organisation aims to ‘protect’ young queer children from “harmful, unscientific ideologies” and promote the idea that sex is “binary…, determined at conception, observed at birth (or in utero), and recorded” (LGB Alliance). Most of the queer community has rejected the LGB Alliance, as it does very little to promote core LGBTQ+ rights and has even been associated with right-wing religious groups in the United States (Clarke, 2024). Nevertheless, the organisation continues to be supported by thousands of self-identified ‘gender-critical’ feminists and LGB activists; thus, its existence is proof enough that transphobic sentiment exists within the rest of the queer community. As a result, queer individuals are encouraged to silence transgender narratives and to exclude transgender individuals from queer spaces.


Criticisms of TERFism – Theory, Policy, and Beyond

Human rights organisations, LGBTQ+ activists, and policymakers from both the UK and the broader European Union have rejected TERFism and called out the UK government for allowing transphobic rhetoric to flourish. For example, legal scholars have compared the British treatment of their transgender community to that of the United States, Hungary, Poland, Russia, and Turkey – countries that have historically struggled and failed to protect their transgender communities (Tanrıver, 2022; Stevens, 2021). In addition, Irish feminist movements have criticised UK government-sponsored transphobic legislation and specifically cited the Irish experience under colonialism (Lewis and Seresin, 2022). In a New York Times opinion article, feminist scholar Dr. Sophie Lewis discusses the intertwined legacies of British colonialism and discriminatory legislation (2019):

“Britain imposed policies to enforce heterosexuality and the gender binary, while simultaneously constructing the racial ‘other’ as not only fundamentally different, but freighted with sexual menace; from there, it’s not a big leap to see sexual menace in any sort of ‘other,’ and ‘biological realities’ as essential and immutable.”

Essentially, the deeply homophobic, misogynistic, and transphobic roots of British legislation are still apparent today. Some transgender individuals are so threatened by the rising TERFism and transphobia in the UK that they have fled to other European countries, such as Norway and Belgium (Quenby, 2022). However, a majority of the British transgender community does not have adequate support or resources to leave the country. For example, in the UK, one in four transgender individuals have experienced homelessness in their lives, one in seven are not open to their families about their gender identity, and over a quarter have faced domestic abuse (Bachmann and Gooch, 2018). Because of these disproportionate struggles, a majority of the transgender community cannot flee the worsening environment in the UK.

Academic circles have also criticised the theoretical underpinnings of TERFism and transphobia more broadly. Decolonial feminist scholars have condemned TERFism and other forms of ‘gender critical feminism’ as deeply misogynistic, annihilist, and anti-feminist. In one critical analysis of TERFism, C. Heike Schotten connects TERFism with ‘extinction phobia’, in which the oppressor identity presents the oppressed identity as a threat to the dominant one’s existence. This reactionary concept relies on the “essentialisation and dehumanisation of the more marginal party as inherently predatory and incapable of anything other than violence, destruction, and harm by their very nature” (Schotten, 2022). In the case of TERFism, transgender individuals are depicted as a malicious threat against cisgender women; this othering of the transgender community is deeply rooted in the notions of white supremacy, heteronormativity, and colonialism (Simon, 2021). Essentially, TERFs advocate for a version of feminism that only protects wealthy, white, heterosexual, and cisgender women, consequently erasing the experiences of poor women, queer women, transgender women, and women of colour. Intersectional feminists have also criticised TERFism as a ‘distraction’ for real, tangible issues affecting women’s circles and the feminist movement, including disproportionately high rates of murder and medical negligence among women of colour (Tudor, 2020). Therefore, TERFism has been widely denounced by various academic circles, including human rights, legal studies, feminist/gender studies, anti-racist studies, and decolonial studies.


As right-wing, populist, socially conservative politicians gain popularity across Europe and the UK, attacks against the transgender community are simply the beginning of a broader erosion of human rights for marginalised groups, threatening the very fabric of democratic societies. According to the Committee on Equality and Non-Discrimination of the Council of Europe, the increasingly popular anti-transgender movement across Europe “mis-characterise[s] the fight for the equality of LGBTI people as so-called ‘gender ideology” (Chikha, 2021). The discriminatory, bio-essentialist language and legislation used to target transgender individuals has been – and will be – used to attack women, people of colour, and other minorities. Moreover, TERFist hate speech attacks the human rights of transgender individuals and encourages discrimination and violence against minority communities (Snow, 2021). If the UK is to continue promoting itself as a liberal Western democracy, the government must take further action to protect the transgender community from harmful rhetoric and hate speech, legal discrimination, and outright violence.


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