Should I Confront My TERFy Ex-Colleagues on Social Media?

Should I Confront My TERFy Ex-Colleagues on Social Media?

Should I Confront My TERFy Ex-Colleagues on Social Media?

A lefty hockey mom wonders if her Facebook posts are affecting her kids’ social lives.

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Dear Liza,

I’m a middle-aged lesbian who’s gotten more and more butch over the years. I now even find myself claimed as an elder by transmasculine kids, which is awesome. I don’t identify as trans, but I definitely feel a solidarity with younger gender nonconformists. 

I have two former colleagues, once good work friends, whom I now rarely see except on social media. They have lately gone TERF. We’ve shared some good times, and they’ve supported me at crucial junctures, but I don’t feel weird about muting them, since their views are now repugnant to me and harmful to younger people like me. But what’s the general line when it comes to full-on blocking or unfriending people whose politics start evolving in ways you disagree with? Is that pointless social media virtue-signaling? Should I stay “friends” with them and take on the challenge of disagreeing with them?

—Butch

Dear Butch,

For readers unfamiliar with the lingo, the term TERF stands for Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists, who won’t accept transwomen as women, seeing them instead as men invading women-only spaces like bathrooms or sports teams, often for sinister, predatory purposes. It’s a paranoid and bigoted point of view, which may stem from an essentialist notion that being born with a penis makes a person disgusting and violent. As if man-hating wasn’t tiresome enough on its own, TERFs dangerously direct that prejudice toward a much more vulnerable group.

It’s sensible to mute these former colleagues so their views won’t distress you. What you’re asking, though, is whether you have further obligations, both as a friend who could influence them and as a person with social media followers who could shape the opinions of others in the Twittersphere. On social media, it’s not always clear whether silence amounts to complicity. Living in Trumpian America, it could become a full-time job to block or unfriend everyone whose opinions bother us, and if you don’t tell the offenders why, the gesture doesn’t accomplish much. I’m sometimes annoyed when I get complaints about something offensive that some knucklehead in my network posted: How am I supposed to keep track? Yet, people who are the target of bigotry feel, with justification, that when their friends let such things go, they’re enabling haters.

Then again, public confrontation can be lethal to a genuine friendship, and in any case, we almost always have a better chance of changing people’s minds in private, especially while acknowledging that some friendship exists. Consider sending the TERFs a personal note, letting them know how their TERFy posts affect you as a gender-nonconforming person, a perspective they might not have considered. Say that you worry about the harm such messages can cause to trans people, many of whom are your friends. (Don’t use the term TERF in your messages, as people who hold these views now consider the word to be a “slur.”) If your TERF friends are posting out of ignorance rather than commitment, a kindly framed heartfelt word from you might help them reconsider. If that doesn’t help, consider sending them some articles that have shaped your own understanding of these issues. After that, you’ve done your best and can let it go.

Dear Liza,

I’m a mother of three who lives in suburban Rochester. Often, my neighbors don’t share my leftist politics. I’ve never been shy about my views, however, and don’t pretend to be anything other than the democratic socialist that I am. However, things have gotten a little more complicated since my kids have gotten older and their parents have started friending me on Facebook.

I regularly make political posts, whether that be sharing articles with a left-wing analysis, promoting Bernie Sanders (when he was running in the primary), giving my own leftist feminist analysis of a particular issue, or deconstructing the right-wing bias of our local newspaper. Now that the parents of my kids’ friends and teammates are among my Facebook friends, though, I’m wondering if I should be starting a separate, “my friends only” list for my political postings that excludes the adults associated with my kids. I don’t care if my politics loses me friends, and I think it’s politically productive to be out there as a hockey mom with left-wing politics, because it normalizes these views, showing that it is not just city “bohemians” who endorse these principles. But I worry that it might also be affecting these people’s approach to my kids. More than once, I have noted a cooling in the other parents’ attitude to me after they friend me and have access to my left-wing posts. In one case, that cooling led to a similar cooling of a once-valued friendship for one of my sons. I am not 100 percent sure whether my politics led this kid’s parents to discourage the friendship, but the events were suggestive enough that I worried.

While I personally don’t care if the other hockey parents disapprove of me, is it wrong of me to affect my kids in this way? After all, don’t they have a right to make their own decisions about their friends?

—Socialist Hockey Mom

Dear Socialist Hockey Mom,

I’ve faced some version of this problem. My son also plays sports, and while I’ve often found comrades on the sidelines, some of his teams have very conservative—even Trumpian—cultures. I’ve generally responded by not friending other parents on Facebook until I know something of their politics. In your case, the horse has left the barn, but that may not be a bad thing.

Like Butch in the letter above, you’re feeling the acute mismatch between real-life relationships and social media, where it can be much harder to hide our politics.

Have you asked your kids what they thought? Would they prefer that you tone down your socialism online? A family discussion might be fruitful, letting them know that you’re trying to avoid bringing social death upon them, but also possibly yielding valuable information about what’s actually going on. Social media can make us all a bit paranoid at times: The shade from that kid’s parents may well have been about your Bernie post, but it also could have been unrelated. Maybe your son said theirs sucked as a goalie, while they believe he’s the next Henrik Lundqvist.

I agree with you that it’s great for the other parents to see someone they can otherwise relate to, a fellow hockey mom, espousing left-wing politics. You also set a good example for your kids by standing up for your beliefs even when they aren’t popular. Perhaps try wording your political posts as if you are directly addressing the more conservative hockey parents. Sometimes people are more likely to respond with an open mind if they feel they’ve been considered as part of the audience. Knowing that you weren’t just writing for your cooler, more radical other friends can be reassuring. Saying something like, “I know many of you are not socialists, but I know you also agree that we are facing serious problems in this country. This is why I think we need Medicare for All,” can make people feel included even if they disagree with you. It lets them know you consider them—and people like them—as part of your friend group, protecting the relationships while also leaving them more open to persuasion.

If your kids do feel that your Facebook posts are significantly complicating their social lives, however, consider reining it in or limiting your reach. Changing the settings on your political posts is one possible solution to this problem, as you note. It’s important that as parents that we get out of our kids’ way whenever possible and let them live their lives. And although social media can feel crucial—especially during this pandemic, when in-person community is harder to find and there’s so much to be mad about—remember that there are plenty of other ways for you to make your voice heard.

Have a question? Ask Liza here.

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