THIS week, it finally happened. I was called a Terf. I’m surprised it took until now. Use of the acronym for “Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist” has increased exponentially over the past few years, and the connotations are generally negative. It’s become a marker of someone who immediately needs to be disavowed. Some argue it’s a neutral label to describe a world view; others (myself included) think it’s a slur, based on how it’s typically used.

If you’re not privy to the current tension around discussions on gender, this won’t mean much, but stick with me. I’d like to unpack what’s happening, without finger-pointing and blame, and make a plea for rational discourse. I know that starting this article with that four-letter word is going to poison the well somewhat, but I hope you’ll read it through in a spirit of honesty and without assuming bad faith. For the record, I’m not going to talk about the Labour Party, changes to the Gender Recognition Act, cotton ceilings or Rose McGowan and Andi Dier. They’re beyond the scope of this, as there’s a conversation we need to have first. A conversation about words, offence, community and understanding. This is an attempt – maybe a clumsy one – to reach across a widening divide.

First, a wee bit of background. As you may have read, a 28-year-old man raped an eight-month-old baby in India. I tweeted about it using the words “born female”, and things took a turn. Someone interpreted this as an anti-trans dig, and I was accused of exploiting the sexual assault of a child to minimise the violence trans women and trans feminine people face.

I have no desire to do any of those things. Violence is violence, and trans or not, it’s overwhelmingly committed by men. I was stunned at what unfolded. I felt misrepresented. I couldn’t understand how those words are considered hateful.

It upset people, and I’m willing to reflect on that, while standing by the need to name sex-based violence unequivocally. I’ve spent much time thinking about the state of the discourse around gender and where we go from here.

There is a tension between feminisms right now and it’s about the conception of gender. That is, whether you understand it as socially constructed based on biological sex, functioning as an oppressive hierarchy and the backbone of patriarchy – or conceive of it as an innate sense of self that can differ from your sex, that pursuing can free you from the limits of the gender binary.

One conception advocates liberation from the things we code as gendered, making room for masculine women, feminine men, and everything in between. The other advocates for identity, presentation and self-expression as a means of freeing oneself from bondage to the expectations of your sex. One side rejects “girl” things and “boy” things’; the other sees preferences as indicative of a true gender that conflicts with sex. Feminists have long fought to be free of expectations. What is liberation to one camp is oppressive to the other.

As you might imagine, it’s difficult to talk across this division when one side is seen to be attacking what a person is rather than a more general sense of identity. So here we have class analysis going tete-a-tete with ontology, using highly politicised language, and causing a lot of bad feeling, hurt, and unpleasantness. Discourse has become increasingly polarised, with an emerging consciousness about what “good” feminism and “bad” feminism are, and a tendency for harassment to follow wherever these worldviews collide and a defence of the stance is put forward.

Let’s be real: there are material consequences for talking about biology, and there are material consequences for stepping beyond perceived gender norms. People lose their jobs, people get hurt. Frankly, it’s a mess. Right now, it seems that everyone is losing. It’s my hope that we’ll be able to find a way through this to a place of understanding, respect and alliance. But there’s a lot to work through first. I’d like to believe that’s not beyond us.

I’m sure there will be plenty of people getting to this point and thinking, “Why does this matter? Why is this getting column inches?”. I know most people don’t take an overtly feminist position, and most people probably give little conscious thought to gender.

But this matters very much to lots of people. It matters to their kids, their friends, their pupils. It matters when one group’s theory reads like an attack on another’s reality. The whole time we’re mired in this, fighting one another, male supremacy continues unaddressed. I take a position on gender as an abolitionist, having grown up rejecting the masculine box I was given, wishing we could all be free from it – but that in itself rubs up against identity, which is innate, central and core to others. It’s the thing that finally makes people feel themselves. It would be inhumane to dismiss the importance of that.

People cannot simply be theorised out of existence, and neither should we be so hitched to our class analysis that we forget to see the people in front of us. By the same token, it’s very clear that plenty of natal women won’t reject biology and the consequences suffered under patriarchy as a result, even if they’ve never even heard of radical feminism. Our lived experiences are different, but we have a common foe in a system that gives straight men the lion’s share of social power, while the rest of us tussle for table scraps.

Is there a way out of the wreckage? Is there a way for us to stop seeing one another as political subjects, and merely as people who want to fix a system that was engineered with inequity at the core? Can we begin to recognise that natal women, trans women and trans men all have stakes in this? Can the right to question and discuss in a spirit of growth and understanding be reclaimed from what is being deemed heresy?

Jack Halberstam, a transgender theorist, spoke of the “re-emergence of a rhetoric of harm and trauma that casts all social difference in terms of hurt feelings and that divides up politically allied subjects into hierarchies of woundedness”. This is where we are now. A cabaret of call-out culture, no-platforming, endless petitioning, book bans, slurs, vandalism, violence.

So much of it is about words, the right to name, to appropriate meaning and insistence upon correct terminology, and how these discourses draw out trauma as muscle memory. Outrage breeds outrage; outrage creates division; division reinforces the echo chambers.

This hyper-censorial approach to language is disempowering us. It’s preventing us from hearing one another, and for building the coalitions needed to make things better for everyone.

I believe under the grief, rage, fear and mistrust there is a common desire for a world with room for everyone to just be, without a tug of war over rights. Despite our ideological differences, despite our differing lived realities, we share a vision for a fairer world than the one we’re in now. That is a start. I’m ready to talk honestly, and I’m ready to listen in earnest. I hope others will join me.