Alicia Hendley. Credit: Provided by Alicia Hendley

There is an increasingly active and organized group of feminists trying to bring the culture war over transgender rights to Canada.

This nascent anti-trans movement is known as “Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism” (or “TERF”) to its opponents and some neutral observers. To its proponents, however, the movement is more commonly described as “gender critical feminism”: a euphemistic rebranding of trans-exclusionary politics that tries to pass it off as something more respectable and enlightened than it is. For my part, I will use “gender critical” here to emphasize that, no matter what name it goes by, the movement is transphobic to its core.

Already, gender critical feminism has its apostates: people who initially participated in anti-trans activism, sometimes intensively, but have since desisted.

These “ex-gender criticals” are rarely profiled. De-transitioners (people who begin but later stop gender transitioning, sometimes becoming anti-trans activists themselves) figure much more prominently in the media discourse on transgender rights.

(So-called gender criticals themselves are to thank for this. They like to bandy de-transitioners around as proof that trans people’s experiences of their gender is not “real”; that trans-affirming medical care is too easy to access; and, that people can, in the end, be rescued from “transgenderism.”)

The relative absence of ex-gender criticals from the public consciousness does a disservice to trans people and our allies.

Trans-inclusive feminists have much to learn from the experiences of ex-GCers. For one thing, the trans-exclusionary movement is not nearly as solid as it might appear from the outside. It is possible for even hardcore members to join the cause of trans inclusion.

For those who hate trans women, this shift is necessarily a kind of de-radicalization: a turn from extremist to moderate views. And it needs to occur on a systemic scale.

The rhetoric of anti-trans feminists gives the public the “permission to hate” that makes physical violence against trans people more likely to occur. This makes it more than merely an intramural exercise to resolve the controversy within feminism over the place of trans women in trans women’s favour.

If trans women are to enjoy any kind of lasting safety, the organizations dedicated to excluding them from women’s spaces and, indeed, Canadian society at large will need to be dismantled. The anti-trans “gender critical” networks that support these hate groups will need to be deconstructed. Whole communities will need to be deradicalized.

The pressing question is how to make this happen. And to answer that, we need to hear the stories of those who have been deradicalized themselves: the stories of the “ex-gender criticals.”

I’ll tell one.

The making of a transphobe

It was the fallout from trans woman Jessica Yaniv’s unsuccessful campaign to force aestheticians to wax her genitalia that set Alicia Hendley on the path to radicalization.

She still considered herself a trans ally in January 2019 when she connected with Morgane Oger, then the vice president of the B.C. New Democratic Party. Allegations were circulating that Yaniv had engaged in predatory behaviour online: in at least one instance, targeting a twelve-year-old girl for sexual harassment. Hendley, a sexual assault survivor herself, was concerned.

Oger suggested she try to identify some of Yaniv’s other alleged victims. So Hendley reached out to Irish transphobe Graham Linehan.

True, she and the gender criticals on Twitter had not gotten along in the past. “I saw them as transphobic and bigoted,” Hendley explained to me. “The GCers disliked me, and I disliked them. A lot of insults were tossed about.”

But the gender criticals were the ones talking about Yaniv the most — to their mind, Yaniv’s behaviour confirmed their worst fears about trans women to be true. Surely, then, a gender critical as prominent as Linehan could connect Hendley with the right people.

The road to hatred isn’t necessarily paved with hatred. It wasn’t for Hendley, whose descent into the bowels of anti-trans activism was as much a trauma response as anything else.

Linehan referred her to others in the gender-critical movement, and Hendley quickly found common ground.

The GCers speculated that Yaniv might not be a trans woman at all, just a man abusing gender self-identification to prey on vulnerable (cis) women and girls. Hendley found this possibility terrifying.

Perhaps the man who assaulted her could do this, too. Perhaps he could do this to victimize her daughter.

Radicalization is a highly personal and individual process. That is one of the reasons it is so difficult to combat. But it often flows from the unsatisfied needs that lead people to seek fulfillment in extremist movements and ideologies in the first place. There could be a need to heal from some earlier trauma, for example, and to feel safe from further victimization.

The transphobic, erroneous claim that permitting gender self-identification exposes women and girls to male violence stoked Hendley’s fears. Joining the gender criticals in their crusade against the rights of trans women in turn gave her a way to resolve them.

By April 2019, Hendley was publishing an article in Feminist Current about her rejection of “trans ideology.” She was active on the gender critical social-media platform Spinster.xyz. By the end of the month, she was banned from Twitter for posting what she now characterizes as “transphobic tweets.”

Hendley’s conversion from trans ally to anti-trans activist was complete.

From founder to Former

The path away from extremism is highly personal, too. Hendley still has far to go on hers.

Shortly before her Twitter ban took effect, she issued a call to action via that platform and Spinster. The time had come for Canadian radical feminists opposed to the existence, rights, and social acceptance of trans women to organize. After all, the United Kingdom was already home to a number of active gender critical groups. Why wasn’t Canada?

The end result was “Canadian Women’s Sex-Based Rights,” also known by the acronym caWsbar. Officially launched in December 2019, the organization has quickly become the national face of the Canadian anti-trans movement.

On October 31, 2021 anti-trans activists with caWsbar protest at Parliament Hill holding up signs. Credit: caWsbar / Twitter

Initially, however, only five other women joined Hendley’s crusade.

Hendley had few social connections beyond this small group, and her gender-critical views only calcified as she began meeting regularly with its members. “We were one group-think,” Hendley explained to me. “An echo chamber, a hive mind, with our mission to be ‘protecting the sex-based rights of girls and women’ (that meant cis).”   

It’s wrong — and more than a little counterproductive — to assume that the people who join, or even found, hate groups do so because they lack intelligence. Hendley herself holds a doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Windsor.

As caWsbar became increasingly established and started acquiring new members, Hendley put her academic training to use drafting the organization’s public-facing positions on several key “issues” facing Canadian cis women. Issues like the need for sex segregation in “Washrooms, Change Rooms and Hospital Rooms (sic).”

Cis men already violate women’s privacy in washrooms, she argued in a write-up on the caWsbar website. “To assume other men will not follow suit, pretending to be a woman, now that anyone who ‘identifies’ as a woman may enter a woman’s facility, is obtuse.”

To be sure, it was specious research that led her to publish this and related statements.

“I recall spending an inordinate amount of time combing the internet for information…that would bolster [caWsbar’s] viewpoint,” Hendley recently wrote me.

“I would ignore all of the information that did NOT fit our core belief of the primacy of sex-based rights for (cis) girls and women (and most information I came across didn’t support our views.” Indeed, each case of violence against a cis woman that she identified was perpetrated by a cis man.

Finding information that contradicted her beliefs about gender and gendered violence did little to shake Hendley’s commitment to the gender critical cause, however.

Feelings tend to play a greater role in people’s departure from extremist groups than rational thought or even ideology. Dissatisfaction with the day-to-day realities of membership, disappointment with how a group is pursuing its goals, and other rather mundane things are often enough to push people out.

Hendley had a “cult-like” commitment to scrapping together proof of caWsbar’s claims, she now understands. Although she had an academic background, she wasn’t about to be argued out of her newfound worldview.

The catalyst for her eventual renunciation of caWsbar was, instead, her frustration with the organization’s deliberation procedure. She simply tired of making decisions by consensus, of engaging in the protracted group discussions this necessarily entailed, and of having to keep abreast of the group’s frenetic internal message threads.

When the Trudeau government introduced legislation, in March 2020, to criminalize conversion therapy, Hendley volunteered to draft a brief outlining caWsbar’s position on the legislation. She still believed that trans youth were simply “gender confused” and in need of the appropriate psychological interventions “to help them sort out what was happening.”

In the eyes of her fellow coalition members, the brief Hendley prepared was “too short and informal.” But by the time she received that feedback, she “was already losing interest in being so involved in the GC movement, and tabled what [she had] written.”

Pandemic school closures meant Hendley’s children were at home much more than before. Her focus turned to providing them with the all-day supervision and care they required. Protecting “sex-based rights” began to seem less urgent.

She picked up a new hobby, learning German, and found she would rather spend her free time on that. caWsbar meetings and action items fell to the wayside as that first pandemic summer dragged on.

The other founders took notice. In December of that year, their long-simmering frustrations with Hendley’s flagging commitment to the organization boiled over during a squabble about her access to the caWsbar Twitter account.

A gender critical friend of Hendley’s quit as a show of support. Hendley herself followed suit minutes later.

It was not a clean break. But then the transition from member to Former often isn’t.

Hate groups provide their members with a sense of community and belonging. The fact that people will lose that if they leave is a barrier to their departure.

That is one of the reasons that Formers can play such an important role in the de-radicalization process. These are the people “who once held but now reject violent extremist views and work to grow beyond the past,” as the American de-radicalization organization Life After Hate describes them. And they can provide the hate-group members who currently hold those views with more than just inspiration and empathy.

Recruited to the fight against hatred, Formers are able to build alternative, supportive communities for these people that mitigate the social costs of leaving.

The consequences for de-radicalization efforts are significant: Since extremists of various stripes “are more likely to get out if they know someone else leaving,” psychologist Clark McCauley told the American Psychological Association, “it may be wiser to focus on shifting the attitudes of entire groups rather than investing in de-radicalization at the individual level.”

Hendley herself didn’t have the benefit of a network of ex-GCers to ease her departure from caWsbar, and it shows.

“I felt conflicted for months to sever all communication with people I’d become close to, and the movement I’d been a part of.” After all, she told me, “it had been a daily presence and focus in my life.”

Following the December fracas, she authored a supportive farewell letter to one of her co-founders. She and her friend in the movement kept in touch for another six months, “mocking certain members [of the gender-critical movement] who turned out to be anti-vaxxers [and] Big Pharma conspiracy theorists.” She reached out to two gender-critical trans women she knew, in an effort to understand how they could align themselves with the movement.

Hendley was nevertheless done with gender-critical feminist ideology herself. With the benefit of increasing distance from the people who fed her anti-trans beliefs, she came to see that the ideology “is founded on bigotry, falsehood, and lies.”

“I recognize that trans women are women and trans men are men,” she wrote earlier this year in a Medium post about her departure. “I consider G[ender] C[ritical] thought inherently transphobic.”

Despite this disavowal, the monster she created remains.

How to stop arguing about trans rights

Hendley is almost apologetic about the factors that led her to disengage from anti-trans activism.

Yes, she was increasingly uncomfortable with the political alliances that such activism forced her into: with Derek Sloan, pro-lifers, and others whom she agreed with about the threat trans people posed to cis women and nothing else. And true, she had her doubts about the gender-critical narrative that every trans woman is dangerous and perverted.

But “I probably would have passively remained a member,” she reflected to me, “had things not come to a head” with her comrades-in-rhetorical-arms.

Trans women and our allies ignore that observation at our peril.

By now, there is no shortage of arguments in favour of trans inclusion and against transphobic talking points. Yet anti-trans activism and hate is on the rise in Canada nonetheless.

That shouldn’t be a surprise.

Ultimately, you are unlikely to successfully argue people out of extremist views. Hendley herself told me that she “really hope[s] someone will evaluate [caWsbar’s transphobic arguments], and pull each point apart.” But she herself found contradictory evidence while drafting several of those arguments, and it didn’t faze her.

Rather than argue ad nauseum that trans exclusion is anti-feminist and contrary to Canadian values, trans women and our allies ought, instead, to mobilize ex-GCers like Hendley to combat transphobic hate. Whatever such people have done in the past, they are in a unique position now to pull others out of the gender-critical movement. That makes them invaluable allies.

Recruiting ex-GCers requires, of course, knowing that these Formers exist in the first place.

“I will forever be cognizant of the harm I caused,” she told me recently, “by initiating the creation of caWsbar (not to mention my subsequent involvement). That’s on me, and no one else.”

But it is not too late for her — or any of the increasing number of ex-GCers out there — to make amends.

Charlotte Dalwood

Charlotte Dalwood is a JD student at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Law. Her previous publications include articles in CBC News Online and the Edmonton Journal. Find her on Twitter @csdalwood.