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The ‘gender critical’ feminist movement is a cult that grooms, controls and abuses, according to a lesbian who managed to escape

Vic Parsons May 17, 2020
‘TERF is a slur’: Lesbian who left gender-critical movement calls it a cult

Writer Amy Dyess. (Supplied)

“TERF is hate speech and it’s time to condemn it,” gender-critical writer Amy Dyess announced in October 2018 – words she now regrets.

“TERF is a slur used to sexually harass, threaten, and silence lesbians,” continued Amy’s viral Medium post, which was liked more than 4,300 times.

Back then, Amy was connected to an international network of powerful lesbians.

She believed, like many people in the “gender critical” feminist movement do, that the lesbian community to which she belonged was under attack from trans-rights activists.

She believed that lesbian identity itself was being infringed on and erased by trans women, and that the media didn’t care – more than that, she believed that the media was being controlled by trans people.

She believed that she was part of the fight back against trans-rights activists – part of the fight back against homophobia.

Amy, who is based in Seattle, doesn’t believe those things any more. Looking back on her time in the “gender critical” feminist movement, she is unequivocal: it’s a cult.

A cult that groomed her when she was vulnerable and sleeping in her car; a cult that sought to control her, keeping tabs on her movements and dictating what she could and couldn’t say; a cult that was emotionally and sexually abusive towards her.

As Amy began to notice more and more red flags about the GC movement – like how it defended abusive women, how it wouldn’t let lesbians speak out about sexual assault perpetrated by women, and how it was forming alliances with homophobic groups – she started asking questions.

Last year, she began speaking out against what she saw as increasingly blatant homophobia in the gender-critical movement.

The cult tightened its grip. Lesbian journalists who are household names “lovebombed” her, she says, trying to keep her in the movement.

British “gender critical” feminists invited her to come to the UK in February, to be a headline speaker at the conference of a prominent organisation that campaigns against trans rights in the name of women’s safety.

After this, the plan was that she’d go on a tour of the country, attending GC meetings and linking up with women in the movement that she’d previously only spoken to online.

One British lesbian even promised to find Amy a wife, so she could stay in the UK and galvanise the struggling gender-critical movement here.

But on the day that she was supposed to buy a plane ticket to the UK, she bailed. She didn’t believe in it any more.

Amy left the “gender-critical” feminist movement. She’s still processing everything that happened to her while she was in it.

And she’s started speaking out as much as she can about what she says is a dangerous, abusive cult, which pretends it is fighting for lesbians, but is, in fact, gaslighting them.

What is a TERF?

Eighteen months before she wrote the Medium piece, Amy tells PinkNews, she hadn’t even heard the word TERF.

“In early 2017, I was on Tumblr,” she says over Zoom. “I’m posting nature stuff, photos of pretty girls, gay stuff, you know? It wasn’t very political, but then I started to hear about TERFs.”

Amy asked a lesbian friend what TERF meant, and was told: “Something they call lesbians for being lesbians.”

TERF stands for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminism. It’s a kind of feminism that, at its roots, doesn’t believe a trans woman is a woman and won’t fight for her rights equally with other women.

The way that the “gender-critical” movement frames it, TERF is a misogynistic, lesbophobic term used to silence lesbians.

“I understand some people are legit TERFs,” she says. “But it sounds more intelligent to call someone transphobic, because that’s what they are. I don’t say TERF anymore, but I’m not going to tell a trans person not to, because I get it – I’ve seen how they can be.”

I understand some people are legit TERFs. But it sounds more intelligent to call someone transphobic, because that’s what they are.

Amy started learning about radical feminism, too, but emphasises: “I’ve never been a radical feminist, ever.”

TERF, ‘gender-critical’ and the ‘international lesbian’ network.

As Amy saw more discussion of the TERF movement on Twitter throughout 2017 and 2018, she started to occasionally comment.

“And that’s when she found me on Twitter,” Amy says, referring to the woman who brought her into the GC movement and had, perhaps, the most influence over her.

“She just noticed and she followed me, she started DMing with me,” she says. Months later, they met in person. “She kept riling me up – she would periodically check in to try to keep me radicalised or on point with the movement,” Amy says. “And we had these international lesbian leadership group chats.”

“She would try to get everybody on the same page about word choices. Like instead of saying ‘trans activists are anti-gay’, maybe say ‘extreme trans activists’.

“And they sold it and packaged it in a way that a fair-minded person would actually listen to some of their approaches.

“They were trying to figure out the best way to get normal people to listen to us. And I believed that our community was getting attacked from within, so we had to do something.”

They were trying to figure out the best way to get normal people to listen to us.

Amy says she thinks a lot of lesbian, bi and gay people – and some trans people – are “on board” with the GC movement because they truly believe that trans people are displacing lesbians.

While it’s true that there has been an increase in the visibility of trans and non-binary people in the past decade, this doesn’t equate to trans people erasing lesbians, Amy says she recognises now.

“It’s emotional manipulation. They’re trying to pit gay and bi people against trans people, basically,” she says.

They’re trying to pit gay and bi people against trans people.

Amy says there is now a “pretty strong network” of “gender-critical” lesbians around the world, who are “in bed with” groups widely condemned as transphobic hate groups, and other groups that are either anti-LGBT+ themselves or working with anti-LGBT+ organisations.

She adds that the woman who introduced her to it all has changed a lot, too: “In 2018, when I first met her, she was talking completely differently. I feel like her heart is in the right place. But I’ve seen her shift progressively more right, politically.”

‘They want you to be unstable.’

While Amy was being told by influential lesbians that her voice was important, she had also just lost her marketing job and was living in her car.

“Mentally, I was in a vulnerable state,” she says. “I was going through a hard time.”

For the first time, Amy’s voice breaks a little as she recounts what this period of her life was like. “I felt like everybody knew. And they just would exploit. Instead of helping, they would just keep taking from you.”

“They wanted you to be unstable,” she pauses. “That’s something I noticed.”

It was at this point that the emotional and sexual abuse she experienced at the hands of the gender-critical movement was at its worst, Amy says.

Another pause. “The more stabilised I got, the less they could control me. And they try to control you.”

“That’s where the struggle started. It’s harder for you to see things and process things when you’re working to pay your bills and survive.”

Homophobia in the gender-critical movement.

“I came into this to fight homophobia. It wasn’t about hating trans people, for me,” Amy says.

“So once I started to see these people be more and more blatantly homophobic, and conservative, and retweeting neo-Nazi propaganda papers…” she trails off.

In the beginning, she tells me, it seemed more respectable; something she was comfortable with. “But I didn’t know what I was getting into at the time,” she continues. “I was sold that what we were doing wasn’t anti-LGBT+. But a lot of the anti-trans arguments sound a lot like anti-gay ones to me.”

A lot of the anti-trans arguments sound a lot like anti-gay ones.

Amy also began to notice the role that the messaging of the Religious Right was playing in the “gender-critical” movement – and that many of the things the movement she was a part of was pushing for were actually anti-gay.

“They really don’t even care about gay people, which is the bottom line [for me],” she says. “They’re going for gay rights too, including marriages, the rainbow, LGBT+ clubs in schools.”

The TERF movement won’t let lesbians talk about abusive women.

Domestic abuse and intimate partner violence are usually perceived as a heterosexual issue – straight men inflicting violence, including sexual violence, against straight women.

But women can be abusive, too.

During Pride month in 2017, UK domestic abuse charity Women’s Aid wrote that LGBT+ survivors – a quarter of lesbian and bisexual women have experienced domestic abuse in a relationship, with two-thirds of them saying the abuse was perpetrated by a woman, according to Stonewall – are a silenced group, left out of the conversation on gender-based violence and suffering from a lack of access to support.

Amy, herself a survivor of sexual violence perpetrated by a woman, wanted this issue to be part of the discussion. But she was repeatedly shut down.

“When I talked about it to any GC feminist, they would downplay it and say ‘Well, it’s not as bad as with men’ or ‘We want to focus on men,'” she says.

The GC movement, Amy says, is “covering for abuse”.

“I call them the matriarchy. They cover for abusive women, right and left, no matter what it is. They won’t let lesbians discuss issues that matter to us.

They won’t let lesbians discuss issues that matter to us.

“Like that’s a lesbian community issue, and they get so defensive and mad [when you try to talk about it]. It’s like women can do no wrong.

“Basically they roped us into this thing just to use us, so they could say ‘We’ve got lesbians on our side’ – and then they’re hurting us.”

The lack of respect afforded to lesbians who wanted to talk about being abused by women was one of the final straws for Amy.

She says that while she wasn’t the only one who had an issue with it, a lot of other gay people in the gender-critical movement “either haven’t woken up to it yet or they just don’t care”.

Leaving the ‘gender-critical’ feminist movement behind.

By late 2019, Amy had fallen out with the gender-critical movement.

She had cold feet about travelling to the UK to speak at the conference of a group whose anti-trans goals she no longer supported, and that no longer felt to her “like a very welcoming lesbian environment”.

She was also uncomfortable about the right-wing direction the gender-critical movement was going in; and had bad feelings about the alliances between feminists and anti-LGBT+ organisations.

There was also the cruelty in the way that people from the gender-critical movement talked to, or about, trans people – while accusing “extreme trans activists” of harassing them and being violent towards women.

“It was a cognitive dissonance,” Amy says, “and it made me uncomfortable.”

The more she’s spoken out, the more she’s understood the movement she was part of.

“They kind of cloak themselves in respectability, but I’m seeing more and more things. And there’s a red flag, too, in the way that they treated me.”

Since leaving, she thinks the “homophobic right-wing direction” the gender-critical movement had started to go in is becoming more mainstream.

‘Now, I am more myself. I have come home.’

Since leaving the gender-critical movement, Amy says that she likes herself more. She maintains that she never shared the majority of the movements beliefs about trans people, but was hooked on a fear that lesbians were being persecuted.

“They find out what your issue is, they play up to that for a little while, and then they get you in their little cult,” she says. “And they start being abusive to you.”

“I reached a point where I just had to be honest with myself,” Amy says. Her friends were worried about her; she was shutting people out; her gender-critical activism was creating problems in her personal relationships.

And now? The difference to her life since leaving the cult has been like “night and day”, she says.

Her chosen LGBT+ family, who she’s known for decades, were still there for her when she left the GC movement. They had been waiting for her.

“It was like coming home,” she says. “I felt like I was coming home.”

More: abuse, amy dyess, cult, gaslighting, gender critical feminism, terf, Trans, transphobia

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