Holly Lawford-Smith is not a TERF

Dana Pham (pronouns: who/cares)
5 min readJul 30, 2022


About a month ago, the Macquarie University Liberal Club hosted a Sunday Session with Prof Holly Lawford-Smith, titled “The Trans Athlete Debate”, which I watched with interest. Holly is an Associate Professor in Political Philosophy in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne, with a particular interest in feminism.

Most of her current research is centered on the conflict of interests between gender identity activism, on the one hand, and both women’s rights, and lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) rights, on the other hand. Unsurprisingly, she does some campaigning for the protection of women’s sex-based rights. So is Holly a trans-exclusionary radical feminist, or TERF? Previously, I confirmed that J.K. Rowling is not a transphobe.

To set the scene, Holly contributed to an article titled “Doing better in arguments about sex, gender, and trans rights”. Section 1.9 of the article states: Human beings generally, including children, have the capacity to pick out the biological sex of others from visual appearances alone, most of the time. The capacity to correctly sex other people most of the time is grounded in a cognitive heuristic, and obviously not infallible. This heuristic fails in the case of “passing” trans people and cases of missexing, but overall, these cases are relatively rare (is it though?). Heuristics like this are fast and don’t appeal to conscious rational deliberation. Human sexing practices are not random or arbitrary: the same people tend to get missexed by many people, for reasons to do with their appearance…

Given the occasional fallibility of our capacity to sex others, arguing for same-sex spaces for females, such as bathrooms, dormitories, and changing rooms, means that sometimes, females in those spaces will be missexed; and sometimes, males in those spaces will not be perceived as such. We see the former as a regrettable cost that has to be balanced against (is utilitarianism actually good?), and is nonetheless smaller than, the greater harms to females, should women-only space effectively become unisex via a policy of self-ID. We see the latter as something that no open society can do anything about, and which it would be illiberal to try to prevent. But our saying this has no consequences for what we should say about the vast majority of cases of trans women, who don’t visually pass, and who therefore easily can be identified as male by nearly all other people (how factual is this?).

I’ve previously made a Section 1.9 argument, less TERFy naturally. “[Holly sees] the latter as something that no open society can do anything about, and which it would be illiberal to try to prevent”… It’s not entirely clear that Holly is a TERF. She elaborated further in “Hitching Glitterbeard Carts to Transsexual Wagons”:

“I think [the Sorites paradox logic] also shows up in discussions about who counts as a woman. The reasoning goes like this: clearly this type of person should be treated as a woman (say, a fully-passing transsexual woman); there is not enough difference between this person and the next (say, a fully-passing transwoman who isn’t able to have sex reassignment surgery because of its prohibitive expense), so she should be treated as a woman too; and so on… until we reach a person who clearly should not be treated as a woman (say, a male-bodied male-appearing person who merely asserts that ‘she’ is a woman, such as US trans activist Danielle Muscato or UK advisor to Stonewall Alex Drummond)…

Realizing that there’s a Sorites (or Sorites-like) series of transwomen helps to explain why people come to such different conclusions about transwomen’s inclusion as women. It’s hard to get out of this problem: either we have to find a point in the series to draw a sharp line — seventy-five grains of sand is not a heap, but seventy-six grains of sand is a heap! — or we have to accept that the accumulated grains are always a heap or never a heap…

It’s the side-by-side comparisons that put us in this predicament. We’re hitching glitterbeard carts to transsexual wagons — even though some transsexual people are actively speaking out against this in an attempt to unhitch. If we don’t want to accept either of these approaches (transsexual women are women therefore glitterbeards are women, or, glitterbeards are not women therefore transsexual women are not women), and instead find a way to say that the transsexual woman should be treated as a woman while the glitterbeard should not be treated as a woman, then we have to find a non-arbitrary point at which to unhitch the wagons…

Considering the whole series together, rather than considering only the first wagon and letting everything else hitch a ride, leads us to a very different conclusion. There should be separate legal protection on the basis of being trans (or for gender identity or gender expression; the latter is appealing because it also protects gender non-conforming people who are not trans). Trans people should be demanding trans rights, not attempting to access women’s rights, which are a poor fit for most of them and access to which can be undermining of the rationales for women’s rights (e.g. rights to single-sex spaces, services, and provisions)… This is compatible with thinking that some transwomen, most plausibly transsexual women and fully passing transwomen, should also be protected as female in at least some cases (given the likelihood of sex-based discrimination).”

This is not an unreasonable argument that Holly is making. Sure, if one defines TERF broadly, then yes, Holly is a TERF, but I wouldn’t be so sure about that. My position is that Holly isn’t a TERF. In fact, she has been open to dialogue with trans women. The conversation about trans identities has been driven by bitter divisions, yet Holly and trans woman Sophie-Grace Chappell, professor of philosophy at Open University in the UK, have previously offered radically different perspectives to each other, as detailed in “Transgender: a dialogue”. I highly recommend this bedtime reading!



Dana Pham (pronouns: who/cares)

Trans-inclusionary radical feminist (TIRF) | Liberal Arts phenomenologist from @notredameaus | Anglo-catholic | all opinions expressed here are my own