Lesbians are famously supportive of trans women. In this first article on Synthetic TERF, we’ll be looking into some claims TERFs have made about what a lesbian is and can be.

In early 2023 the interim CEO of “Just Like Us” a UK based advocacy group, conducted a survey of 3600 people between the ages of 18-25. The lesbians were most likely to know a trans person—92% of them did. And, 96% said they were supportive or very supportive of trans people. That’s compared with 89% of LGBTQ+ population, and 69% of non-LGBTQ+ people.

The Melbourne chapter of “Dykes on Bikes”, a staunch organisation founded in 1976 in San Francisco, recently demonstrated its support for the lesbian community by opposing a “lesbian born female” event being organised at the St Kilda Pride centre. The so-called “Lesbian Action Group” (LAG) that made the attempt were comprehensively condemned:

Dykes on Bikes, described LAG’s plans as “nothing more than dangerous transphobic rhetoric and hate, causing harm and creating division when we should be united.”

Dykes on Bikes’ Communications Officer Kieran Cavanagh clarified in a statement that LAG did not “represent the broader lesbian community.”

Cavanagh also noted: “Our lesbian community is extremely vast and diverse, and that is a pillar of its strength. Without our trans sisters or queer elders, we would not have the freedoms and rights we celebrate today or the insight and knowledge for the challenges ahead.”

Dykes on Bikes added their names to a joint submission to the Australia Human Rights Commission to condemn LAG’s exemption application.

Dykes on Bikes condemns ‘lesbian born female’ event in Australia

The message here is very clear but worth repeating: Lesbians that oppose trans and queer inclusion are spreading dangerous, divisive rhetoric, causing harm, weakening the lesbian community, and don’t represent the community.

Here Comes the Grift

It’s curious, then, that serial attention-seeker Holly Lawford-Smith would speak up in support of the event. Holly is an Associate Professor at the University of Melbourne and attended the Nazi supported “Let Women Speak” rally on the steps of Victorian parliament in March of 2023. While Nazis stood on the steps beside her, Holly made a speech where she joked about Lili Elbe, a trans woman who’s reassignment surgery was conducted in pre-war Germany, with the help of an institute whose books were then famously burned by the Nazis. At no point did Holly mention or condemn the Nazis standing by her side.

Holly’s submission was, at best, confusing. I can only really conclude that the arguments she made are a grift, an attempt to gain attention, because they are so incomprehensible. Let’s examine some. She published her submission in a twitter post which I summarise below.

In her defence of the LAG event, Holly immediately makes two claims: that sex at birth has never changed and that there is no such thing as a male lesbian.

In the first section, Holly claims that lesbians have a “distinctive culture” and that LAG is somehow related to that culture. She goes on to say that an exclusion of males would be sufficient, given that they are the main “threat” to the event. If that exclusion was allowed, apparently LAG would be able to run events, even if bisexual and heterosexual females attended.

In the second section, she claims that it is “activist language” to refer to “woman” “as though it refers to a gender identity” and then goes on to state that this idea is “advice based on what a small group of activists believe the law should be”.

In the third section, Holly argues that limiting attendance to this event wouldn’t require intruding on the privacy of individual attendees. She conflates “lesbians” and “Lesbians Born Female” and claims that “social norms” would prevent people from attending the event. She also claims that LAG is not proposing to use anything other than “social norms” to police their events. She then mentions that “thousands of years of evolution have primed us to be able to distinguish sexes, and there is substantially less confounding of sex-based appearance now that most trans people do not have surgeries”. She goes on to imply that challenging people would not be “sex-based harassment” even in the case where a female that appears to be a man is challenged.

The ridiculousness of this submission is probably already apparent, but let’s go through it step by step.

Claims and Responses

BIG CLAIM 1: That “sex at birth” has never changed

This is already shaky ground but probably the most reasonable point that Holly makes.

The verifiability of this claim is mostly reliant on how we view “sex at birth”. If it’s what goes on the birth certificate under “sex”, this can change by law in many jurisdictions. If it’s based on hormones, genitalia, breasts, gamete production, genes, or chromosomes, these can all be either changed or incorrectly/partially detected “at birth” and so sex can change on that basis. Even chromosomes, which are perhaps the most fixed of these sex characteristics, can be different depending on what part of the body is tested in the case of human chimerism.

Clearly, hormones and gamete production both tend to change along the course of—particularly female—lives, with an expectation that menopause will occur. People take hormones and wilfully change their hormone levels for a variety of reasons.

Breasts and genitalia can be surgically altered. Genitalia can sometimes be ambiguous particularly in the case of intersex individuals, and doctors can decide a sex (and surgically intervene) based on what binary sex it is easiest to imitate. The recent Australian case of Rob Wilson, a Tasmanian man who has had lifelong complications resulting from surgery performed on him as an infant, demonstrates this point.

BIG CLAIM 2: There is no such thing as a male lesbian

Yes there is. I know several.

Aside from that, there’s no scientific, quantified proof that this is the case, and negatives like this are notoriously hard to prove. We don’t even know if Sappho, the ancient Greek poet the word lesbian refers to and the word “sapphic” is derived from, was a lesbian or a woman in the modern sense.

“Lesbian” as a term to refer to a sexual relationship between women, only came into common usage around 1870, when it was used by the medical profession to pathologize homosexuals, then commonly known as “inverts”. Before that time it was most commonly used to refer to people or things coming from the island of Lesbos in the Mediterranean. So, the idea that a Melbourne-based group of people in 2023 have settled on its now “objective” meaning is very interesting.

Lesbian isn’t a word that is by any means owned by a particular subset of lesbians, and any claim to the effect that kids these days are using the word wrong when they use it in reference to trans women, is frankly embarrassing. It betrays a total misunderstanding of how language works, and is particularly braindead considering the term’s current usage is only around 150 years old. We also have no evidence to suggest that it wasn’t, historically, used to refer to trans women or other gender diverse people. The concept that there is one monolithic lesbian culture that LAG and Holly are speaking for, is laughable in itself.

BIG CLAIM 3: Lesbians have a distinctive culture, and LAG and Holly are somehow tapped into that culture

There’s no evidence to suggest that LAG or Holly are somehow accessing lesbian culture in a purer way than the LGBTQIA+ community is. Culturally, lesbians from Dykes on Bikes, and the surveyed lesbian community at large, are time and time again, supportive of trans rights. This extends to the rights of trans women to say they are women and to say they are lesbians.

Any claim Holly or LAG make to the culture of lesbianism is quantifiably unsupported. Claiming that lesbians “culturally” want to exclude trans women has no basis.

BIG CLAIM 4: The exclusion of males would be sufficient, and events could occur if bisexual and heterosexual women attended

There’s not much to say about this except that it really betrays the motives of Holly. Holly doesn’t really want an event for lesbians, she wants an event that excludes trans women, an exclusive lesbian event that accepts people that don’t even say they are lesbians. This undermines everything Holly says about herself and the event standing for lesbians and lesbian culture.

LAG, in their application, specifically ask for heterosexual and bisexual women to be excluded.

BIG CLAIM 5: Describing womanhood as though its a “gender identity” is “activist language” not based on what the law says

In Victoria you can change your gender on your birth certificate on the basis of a supporting statement made by someone you’ve known for twelve months and a statutory declaration. It costs $110.

This isn’t based on sex, this doesn’t require proof of being female. The reality is that the Victorian authorities and the law recognize people on the basis of their self-identification. In order to change this to require it to be tied to sex, would require activism.

BIG CLAIM 6: The event will use “social norms” surrounding “lesbians born female” to exclude people—and nobody’s privacy will be intruded upon.

We know that some intersex people are assigned male at birth and later transition or affirm their genders. If it isn’t clear precisely what elements of sex are required to attend this event, running this event will require people to divulge personal details that they may otherwise not want to in order to adhere to the “social norms” of the event.

BIG CLAIM 7: “thousands of years of evolution have primed us to be able to distinguish sexes, there is substantially less confounding of sex-based appearance now that most trans people do not have surgeries”

The claim that there is a way to “look like a woman” is misogynistic. Women can and do look any way they want and regardless of sex assigned at birth, have a huge diversity in height, body type and other physical characteristics. I have many personal friends who are trans, and people assume they are not trans. Many trans people “pass”, and people simply don’t know that they are trans.

Appealing to “evolution” is regularly done by homophobes who claim there is something unnatural about butch women, tomboys and gay men who choose to shave. Homosexuality itself has many times been said to run counter to the evolutionary tendency to procreate.

There will always be tall women with strong jawlines, broad shoulders and facial hair. Here’s hoping they don’t have to suffer Holly’s misogynistic expectations of what a “real” woman looks like for much longer.

BIG CLAIM 8: Challenging people would not be “sex-based harassment” even in the case that a female who appears to be male is challenged

Holly seems to think that there’s no issue if a female who “looks like” a male is challenged. So Holly admits, despite her belief that we are “primed” to “distinguish sexes” that people may be challenged because they appear to be the “wrong sex” while in fact having the “right sex”. Again, Holly reveals her misogyny here by implying that there are women who “appear” to be male, as if their appearance isn’t just another way women look.

Presumably someone like this, unable to sufficiently prove their female-ness, would be subject to the “social norms” Holly claims will be used to exclude people from the event. It’s almost inevitable that a cisgender lesbian would be excluded from this event because she doesn’t look “female enough” for people like Holly.

What’s the Point of All This?

So, given the amazingly contradictory and easily refutable points Holly makes, what is the point of the application for LAG’s “lesbians born female” event? Why are they making an attempt to define lesbianism on their terms?

I think this reflects a deep anxiety. If we look at LAG’s initial application for the event, they say that the event is “for young and old lesbians born female to provide an example to young lesbians just how dynamic and courageous the older lesbians in our communities have been for the past fifty plus years”. Additionally they express exasperation that “we are having to ask permission to not only meet but to advertise whatever it is we want to do in order to reach out to younger lesbians”. I think pretty clearly there is a deep seeded recognition that the tiny segment of lesbian culture that they are representing, is failing to reach younger lesbians.

As we see from Dykes on Bikes, and from the Just Like Us survey, younger lesbians simply aren’t represented by a dictated lesbianism of trans exclusion. Younger lesbians don’t need a paternalistic and frankly patriarchal voice speaking for them on behalf of “the lesbian community”, even if it is butch. You only need to look at photos of the membership of LAG to understand that they don’t represent young people.

Lesbian Action Group: Attendees at an 8th October protest of the Vic Pride Centre Lesbian Action Group: Attendees at an 8th October protest of the Vic Pride Centre

So I think it is easy to recognise that there’s an anxiety here, a correct recognition that this group is dying out, that this worldview is dying out, and they aren’t representative of current lesbians.

I also don’t think that Holly and LAG experience lesbianism in the way that many people do. I don’t know many people who look at a person and find them attractive in a way that’s contingent on their chromosomes and gamete production (in other words is “sex-based”).

I think many people read books for enjoyment. What Holly and her friends are doing is the equivalent of jumping out from behind the shelves and saying that reading a “book” on an e-book reader (or listening to an audiobook) isn’t really reading a book because there aren’t any physical pages. They want a book club and they’re going to exclude anyone who doesn’t read the physical book, and they WILL be checking with a series of questions if your bag seems a little too slim to be holding a book when you arrive. Also, any book club that allows people to read e-books or audiobooks isn’t representative of True Book Clubs.

There’s really nothing stopping a person from having a private book club with such silly rules, but it is likely to be unpopular, and unlikely to reach young people who think e-book and audiobook readers are totally valid.

I think there’s another anxiety at play here. I think Holly acknowledges that she may at some point fail to recognise a trans person is trans. To her, authentic lesbianism does not include trans people, and therefore any trans person she fails to recognise is a threat to the integrity of her identity as a Real Lesbian. This may be why the exclusionary events are important to her.

The truth is that lesbian love, throughout history, could not have possibly been based on a biological understanding of sex. Chromosomes were only discovered in the 1800s. In many ways, the inclusive view of lesbianism is the one with a longer lineage, of a lesbianism that didn’t require the evaluation of a doctor or the narrowing of eyes at anyone with a strong jawline.

What Holly and LAG are representing is a lesbianism that requires whipping out the metaphorical callipers, to check that the dimensions of womanhood are adequately measured for their purposes. Does their lover’s jaw look a little too square? Are their shoulders a millimetre too wide? Is their skull a little too man-shaped?

I think that there is still the possibility that Holly and LAG can hold events, exclusive events, that they have carefully selected only people with the right chromosomes for. I can’t really stop anyone from having a misogynistic group of friends that believe all women look a particular way. The problem is when a small group—purporting to speak for an entire culture—lays exclusive claim to a label that is largely outside their control. A trans woman proclaiming she’s a lesbian isn’t dictating anyone else’s identity. It is still open for people to call themselves a lesbian on the basis of their own cranial structure. They can have private parties in their own homes where they jubilantly indulge in measuring one another’s skulls. But, calliper-based lesbians don’t get to say who the other lesbians are.