I was a thirteen-year-old lesbian. I was also a fourteen-year-old bisexual. Then a fifteen-year-old queer grrl, a sixteen-year-old genderqueer and, finally, a seventeen-year-old transboy. Luckily, the last one stuck and I won’t be doing any more tiresome coming out in the foreseeable future. But, having spent time in all those identities, I’ve also spent a lot of time in feminist spaces. Early on, feminism was shiny and attractive to me because Kathleen Hanna was shiny and attractive to me. Only after many long hours of really paying attention to the lyrics, zine-ing, researching, and workshopping, did it became a no-brainer. Women deserve fucking rights. Period.
Once I spent a little time in radical spaces, my views on this changed. Sure women deserved rights. But what defines a woman? Someone labeled a woman at birth? Only straight women? Only white women? Only women without disabilities? There are a lot of ways to be a woman and even more ways to be perceived as a woman. And what exactly does “rights” encompass? What good is closing the wage gap when women of color, trans women, women with disabilities, fat women, low-income women, and countless others can’t get jobs to begin with? What good is it when they have to worry about being attacked on their way to the interview? In the wise and feisty words of Emily over at Tiger Beatdown, my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.
So my feminism became intersectional or, rather, it started trying to be. Unfortunately, not everyone’s followed suit and I found that most of my time in what used to be safe, comfortable space was now being devoted to Privilege 101 talks. And what, invariably, came up in every chat was whether or not I was allowed to identify as a feminist at all. There were groups that were open to all genders and, in those places, it rarely came up. But in an overwhelming number of spaces, the jury was split into fairly even opinions. 1. You are a man, so go away. 2. You say you’re a man, but you’re really a woman and the fact that you want to be a man makes you a traitor. Go way. 3. You’re a man in a dress. Go away. Oh, you were assigned female? Come on in. You have “a woman’s experience”.
Repeatedly dragging myself through those types of conversations in hopes of even one person getting it eventually took its toll. Burnt out and discouraged, I ended up removing myself from every feminist organization I had ties with in favor of more general social justice communities. Being around people who genuinely cared about dismantling oppression it all its forms was super refreshing and the fact that feminist concerns were still voiced and given weight, though not the number one focus, made it feel like home. But something was still iffy and I couldn’t put my finger on it for the longest time. It was the wildly varied and across-the-board stanky treatment of trans folks. Transmasculine* people were valorized, while transfeminine** individuals were vilified.
Now, this is definitely cissexism and cissexism always comes with a little binarism, but I honestly see the core of this issue as sexism. More specifically, as disdain for the feminine. Why would someone transitioning into being recognized as male or masculine be so much more sweepingly valued and validated than someone transitioning into being recognized as female or feminine? Because maleness and/or masculinity is valued and valid in our society. And it’s not enough to just identify as male. You have to rigidly meet the parameters of what masculinity looks, acts, and sounds like or subvert them in a way that is attractive and harmless. And, for trans people of all identities, that expectation is incredibly harmful. In the eyes of dominant society, trans women have already committed the egregious offense of eschewing manhood and are now wreaking more havoc by not meeting the unachievable standard of womanhood set up by patriarchy. Trans men are rewarded for trying to become the best thing anyone can be: a man. But that approval is quickly and frequently revoked when they fail to live up to hyper-masculine ideals. And, finally, trans people who identify as anything but strictly male or female just need to “choose a side” and start in on meeting that side’s criteria.
But the point of this rambling is not the fact that everyone sucks! In fact, the moral of this story is more the capacity of all beings to not suck. And you can start not sucking today (by which I mean not being an oppressive rudebutt. Go ahead with your bad self on the other kind of sucking.) The best and biggest method I can think of to improve your allyship is to call others out when they say problematic things and be open to being called out yourself. Start discussions and stick with them until a non-stanky consensus has been reached. Check your privilege ‘fore you wreck your privilege! And, finally challenge femmephobia and cissexism everywhere you see it. Never underestimate the power of strongly worded emails. Send out a flurry of ‘em! Speak honestly with yourself about how you can lessen the harm you cause to trans and/or femme friendos. Abandon the idea of saving face. I think you’ll find that there are few things as freeing as giving yourself permission to be wrong and improve for others that need you to.
*I use transmasculine as a catchall for anyone who was coercively assigned female at birth and identifies otherwise. I know that it’s a pretty binary and inadequate/inaccurate term and I don’t like using but I’m currently at a loss for another one that would get the same point across. Suggestions welcome!
** Anyone coercively assigned male at birth who identifies otherwise
Maxwell is a grimy femme boy from Portland, Oregon who likes crafts, possums, and playing harp. He works with Triple Point Youth to create safe, supportive space for queer/trans kids and has never written a real live article before!