But I've encountered a lot of rigid binary thinking among people who ought to know better, binary thinking that isn't necessarily the same familiar gender binary but still rooted in that same kind of either/or, and that's what I want to write about today.
To get started, let me relate to you a pair of conversations.
X: That's a nice jacket patch you've got there. 'Radical feminist'. Is that your sister's jacket you're wearing?
W: Thanks! No, it's mine.
X: Well, men can't be feminists. They can be pro-feminist, or feminist supporters but feminist voices and feminist actions and the faces of feminism, well, that has to be women, speaking for ourselves.
W: I don't identify as a man. I'm male but I'm not a man.
X: Well, that's good. Reject that identity. But you still can't speak as a feminist as a male person. Our oppression is oppression as female, and feminists need to be female. Because when a feminist opinion is represented, if a male spokesman gets to do that representing, it isn't feminism any more.
W: Across campus is Dr. Thorensen. He lectures and writes books for a living and he drives a BMW and lives in an impressively big house. He identifies as a Marxist, a socialist. I wouldn't say he's working class.
X: That may be a legitimate point, but that doesn't mean feminism has to follow that route. You are male, you are treated as male, therefore you are privileged as male.
W: Well, I'm not trying to do a chivalry thing here. Patriarchy as a social structure prohibits me from stepping outside of what it defines as masculinity. Behaviors and personality traits are demanded of me that aren't who I am, and as a person who doesn't fit that, I'm oppressed. I see what you're saying about the voice and face of feminism needing to be female, but what do we call it when I'm doing this for my own political reasons?
X: But that's exactly the sort of thing I'm talking about. You're not oppressed as a man. Patriarchy is the oppression of women, by men.
W: Well, what am I oppressed as? A sissy femme? If I was gay I could talk about homophobia. Should I call it femmeophobia?
X: I'm saying you shouldn't call yourself a feminist.
W: When I start explaining my situation to people, I'm going to end up using concepts that feminists put into words. If I use their terms, "feminism" is what they call this perspective and this politics. If I invent my own terms, it's going to be like I'm stealing feminists' ideas and not giving them credit, isn't it?
X: You shouldn't do that either. Feminism is ours. Go find your own cause, you can be supportive of feminism but you can't really be a full-fledged participant.
W: But this is my cause.
Z: That's an interesting jacket patch you've got there. 'Radical feminist'. Why would you want to have anything to do with them?
W: Radical feminists were first in challenging biological essentialist ideas about males and females being fundamentally different and having automatically built-in sex roles they were supposed to conform to.
Z: Are you kidding? They're the ones who won't let trans women into their midst. They say trans women aren't real women. If that's not biologically essentialist, what is?
W: Some of them have that attitude. Most radical feminists have a more complicated view of transgender women, though. It's not that they don't recognize that a trans woman's identity is woman, and female, it's that they're saying trans women's experience isn't the same as the experience that they're organizing around.
Z: No, they say we're not women. They say "hey everybody, we're organizing as women" and then they say "no, not you, you're not welcome".
W: Well, if they said they were organizing as people who were female at birth, would you be more OK with them saying you don't really belong at their meeting?
Z: I've always been female. When I was born I was assigned male, but that's because the cisgender world has an ideology to support. We need to get past focusing on the ideology of there being two body types that define gender. And that's what those radical feminists are doing, they're making everything be about the binary.
W: OK, so if they said they were organizing as people who were assigned female at birth, you'd be more OK with them saying you aren't really welcome at their meetings?
X: But that's personal information, and it's no one's business. There shouldn't be any distinction between whether you're trans or cis. You're a woman and that's what counts.
W: Well, aren't you organizing as transgender men and women to form support groups and hold rallies for your rights?
In both conversations, there are participants who get caught up in the notion that there is a Category and either you're in it or you're not. Either/or. Binary.
If we value being able to get past the familiar binary of gender, we should examine other binaries when we encounter them and see if we can get past that kind of either/or thinking. Rather than a person being or not being a woman or a feminist or whatever, acknowledge the ways in which a person is and the ways in which that same person isn't, accept and embrace the contradictions and the fragility of definitions.
This is a real-world concern. Just the other day, a new member joined one of the Facebook "Nonbinary and Genderqueer" groups that I participate in. This person had never come out, had never put a name to the felt sense of difference and the confusing and peculiar sense of identity, and bounced in introducing themself and asking questions: "It's like this for me, is it like that for some of you other people in here too?" This person used some terms like "heterosexual" and "lesbian" and referenced their own physical configuration to explain what they meant, and quickly a barrage of posts from the group's existing membership came in to correct them. "If you're saying a person who doesn't have that configuration isn't heterosexual you're using binary thinking and that's offensive in here and maybe you don't belong here". The new person asked questions and made additional explanations, more or less like the two conversations I recounted above, but the response continued to be "You are saying bad things, things that are wrong. You're using categories in a bad way and you need to learn better or leave". So the new person left.
Our spaces aren't the safe spaces we pretend that they are. Too often we have enshrined a set of definitions and terms and become very rigid, very binary, in how we react to other people's language and how they express themselves. Too often we aren't listening, we're just litmus-testing people to see if anything they're saying is reminiscent of a politically incorrect belief or attitude that we've already decided is unwelcome here.
I don't think that's at all a good thing. I think we need to prioritize communication, and a good way to do so is to say "There are some ways in which what you just said is problematic for people in here, but that doesn't mean there aren't ways in which it makes an important point. Let's discuss both".
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