When I was in college, I heard about a women’s consciousness-raising group forming. Women’s issues being important to me, and having a sincere desire to learn more about them, I asked if I could join. I was told calmly but firmly and with a bit of an edge that I was not welcome as I was “part of the problem.” Not yet really understanding the concepts of male privilege or systemic sexism, I took the statement rather more personally than it was probably (hopefully) intended, keeping my hurt to myself and resolving to remain open to the idea that at some point in time I might be invited back in to the circle and would be able to, as I then saw it, work more openly with women toward achieving equality between the sexes.
Ever since that day, I have been rather uncertain about whether or not I have the right to call myself a feminist. Women have variously encouraged me to do so and forbidden me to do so. Over time, I had evolved to a position where I thought of myself as a feminist, but avoided using the label. I knew and respected that some women felt only women and girls could truly call themselves feminists. I also knew and understood that people who benefit from privilege, however unearned and undesired, don’t get to exert that privilege to impose their views, however well meaning, on an oppressed group. Accordingly, I would express my views but avoid labeling myself unless and until I was reasonably certain that it would be accepted.
However, over the past four or five years, as I have become more aware of the existence of transgender people, how transgender people self-define, and how that relates to feminism, I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with the word “feminist” itself. For starters, I’ve become aware that some feminist events deliberately and explicitly exclude transwomen, on the grounds that only someone born female, raised as a girl, and grown into a woman has the right to consider herself feminist. That many transwomen consider they were in fact born female, albeit without XX chromosomes, and self-define as women does not matter. It seems wrong to me that one group of people can sit in judgment of another group and overrule their own feelings as to who they were born to be. At the same time, it is undeniably true in our culture that someone raised as male and thought of as such has a different experience in childhood (and eventually adulthood) from someone raised as female and thought of as such, whatever their true gender is and however they self-define. How best, then, to resolve that issue? How does it relate to the feminist movement?
Additionally, I have become aware that there are a number of people who fall under the transgender umbrella – and some who don’t – who self-identify as having no gender, having multiple genders, or being gender fluid. Such people, sometimes openly and deliberately, sometimes more quietly, sometimes only by their very existence, challenge gender norms at a deep level. Using the term “feminist” not only risks excluding them but also, in reinforcing the concept of a gender binary, undermines their politics and/or their very identity. This, too, seems wrong.
Yet the core ideals of feminism as I understand it – achieving equity (I’ve learned equity and equality are not always the same thing) across gender lines and valuing and respecting all human beings – continue to appeal to me. Indeed, these ideals and the fight to achieve them are at the core of who I am. So I was left in the position of believing in the ideals of feminism, knowing that some people – for reasons it was not my place to judge – would not permit me to self-identify as feminist, and moreover feeling uncomfortable with the word itself. What to do?!
Earlier this month, I read a tweet posted by Kelley Temple: “Men who want to be feminists do not need a space in feminism. They need 2 take the space they have in society & make it feminist.” The statement both appealed to me and rubbed me the wrong way. Who was she to determine who could and who could not have a space in feminism? On the other hand, who better to make that determination? And in the end, whether I call myself feminist or not, if I’m not working to make society respect feminist ideals, I’m not doing my job in the struggle for social justice. Something inside me both cracked and fell into place. I was finally ready to give up the battle over whether or not I was allowed to and/or should call myself a feminist and focus only on the deeper goal.
And so, I am no longer a feminist. But my ideals are unchanged. I am now… a gender activist. And proud of it.