Why I’m a non-binary feminist
Like many people, I had a seriously poor introduction to feminism. Of course I was for equality, like everyone else is and says, but I couldn’t call myself a feminist for a long time for a variety of reasons — some of them valid, but some of them reasons not really explored, some of them based on stereotypes.
My first introduction to feminism as an actual subject of study and interest wouldn’t begin until undergraduate university. I chose an women-only university to attend, mostly because I was honestly terrified of cis men and the date rape statistics on college campuses.
While I chose an women-only school, I was still terrified of being told that I was the worst thing in the world for wanting to be a stay at home parent and for shaving my legs, even when my hormonal disorder didn’t make my leg hair grow very much. When I look back on my identity as a “stay at home mom” during this time, I’d hybridised anti-capitalism with a sort of neo-traditional idea of womanhood, which was an interesting position for me to take.
Feminism at all-women universities
My experience at a women-only university had a profound impact on me. I didn’t actually learn a lot of feminist theory there, but the liberal arts approach and the women centred focus was important and it helped me develop a strong sense of identity. There were messages given to me about sexuality that allowed me embrace parts of who I am and that helped me start a journey in academic learning about privilege and social justice concepts.
Looking back, there were a lot of holes, a lot of ways my school failed to help foster my identity as queer person, a lot of ways it continuously misgendered me, and a lot of ways it failed in teaching me about white privilege. But, this was an amazing first step in that journey, a step that was crucial for me to understand myself.
One of the inherent privileges of normative people is that they are not only taught about their own identities from the start, but also taught good things. As a non-binary person, as a person with a sexual development disorder, as a queer person, I had to learn about myself before I knew who or what I was. I remember distinctly the first thing I ever learned about trans people was a joke in grade school that people always used to make when a teacher was absent that they didn’t like.
They always used to say that the teacher was absent because they were going to “have a sex change”, and everyone found this hilarious, even I did. I found it hilarious because everyone else did. So before I learned about myself, I was taught to hate myself.
Even with the influence of a mother who is a lesbian, before I entered a double digit age, I knew it was “wrong” to “judge girls that way”. Then I was taught by lesbians and gays that bisexual people needed to “pick a side”. While other kids got positive messages about themselves and their families (to a certain extent, I realise), I was taught before I even understood who I was that I was the butt of jokes, that I was inherently wrong, evil, and bad.
Without the experience of my undergraduate university, I don’t know how long it would have taken me to finally find the concept of non-binary identities, to question my gender, to understand why “female” never really fit for me, to understand and mature sexually, and to overcome some of the cissexist, hetersexist bullying as well as the physical, sexual, emotional, and mental abuse I’ve been through.
Still, I had troubles wrangling with feminism. I, again, supported the idea of equality, but something didn’t fit. Something bothered me and I had no idea what words to use to explain it or why.
Mostly, I was bothered by the cissexism that’s prevalent in a lot of feminist discourse. It was “male” and “female”, with cissexist assumptions about genitals therein, and I had no idea where I would fit and it threw me off. But I had no words or concepts given to me to make sense of that feeling.
I assumed that I was thrown off by it for “what about the menz” reasons, that I just really, really loved the wonderful male members of my family (despite the fact that over 80% of the males in my family are physically, emotionally, mentally, and sexually abusive) and that’s why the talk of all of the horrible things that men did to women bothered me.
Feminism and non-binary identities
I’m sure that part of my reasoning, just as it always has been when I’ve denied privilege I or others have had, that I was so focused on not calling all men bad that I missed the greater point of statistics and feminist arguments. But there was also something there that I couldn’t put my finger on, something that I would later be able to grab by the reins when I studied feminism’s intersection with queer theory.
But before I got the benefit of studying queer theory in my postgraduate university, I lived for a year and a half in rural North Carolina, which was a huge change from the four years I had been living in the Bay Area in California and the six years in total I had lived in California.
Though I’d previously lived in Virginia and Kentucky, this was my first experience living and working as an adult in a very conservative place. Needless to say, I was very closeted and unhappy. I was incredibly gendered in a way I hadn’t experienced.
When I lived in Southern states previously, I was below the age of 14, so I was more seen as a kid than necessarily gendered in the same ways. I became frustrated and angry when the first question people asked me was if I was married or not (the second one sometimes being what church I went to). I was only in my early twenties and the idea that I would already be married and willingly so was appalling to me.
I had barely had my first couple of romantic relationships. I was asked by family members, now that I had completed my degree, if I was ready to “settle down and have babies” yet. Even as someone who has a strong desire to be a parent, the idea that I at the unstable age and economic situation I was would decide that supporting another human being, let alone a child who depended on me for survival, was completely ridiculous to me.
I found my own words and concepts stemming from these people’s minds. The same individuals who thought that President Obama was a terrorist were saying the same things about feminism I had. And so, I reexamined my reasons. I decided that I would embrace the label of “feminist” even if it was problematic in ways I didn’t yet understand.
Reclaiming the feminist label
Since then, I was exposed to a variety of queer feminist thinkers that questioned the structure of gender and what it entails in ways I enjoyed. I’ve also come to realise some of the other ways the feminist label can be problematic for people and it’s history in the US among cis white middle class women and understand why other people choose not to take the label.
Unfortunately, I’ve also become aware of “radical feminists” who are anti-trans, but I don’t assume that I have to call myself something else because of them. I have abandoned the notion of deciding what feminism “needs to focus on” and realised my own privilege.
My goal to make people deconstruct the “realness” of the concepts of sex and gender is a valid feminist pursuit, but another feminist who sees equal pay and childcare legislation as more important for their lives and focus is just as valid and no less feminist than I.
I also realise that, while it’s important for me to question binary gender systems where I see them, that I do not and never will support abolishing “women-only” spaces. I support ensuring trans women are welcome in these spaces, but in the end, I feel that abolishing women-only spaces is the equivalent of shooting myself in the foot.
Without my experience of an women-only university, despite it being slightly misgendering, I would have never come into contact with concepts that lead me to find a name for my identity. Without feminism, I would have never come across queer theory. Without that first initial push to recognise myself as an equal and to realise the ways in which misogyny affects me, who knows how long it would have taken for me to explore what being a woman means or doesn’t mean. There are so few of these spaces.
Within Eurocentric cultures, there are so few avenues for women to gain self esteem and confidence in who they are. Destroying women-only spaces only reinforces the same patriarchal structures that harm me, especially because those same structures will never recognise my identity as non-binary, because they will label me as “female” and with it all that they decide that entails. Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t question sex segregated spaces if they seem to exclude trans women, but to destroy or interrupt conversations in these spaces, I feel is counterproductive.
Focusing on women’s issues
When International Women’s Day arrives, I talk about the struggles women face. When subject surrounding domestic violence, rape, and abuse come up, I never fail to highlight how they impact women in larger numbers. When we talk about poverty and how it affects communities, I point out that women are disproportionally impacted by poverty, lack of resources, lack of education, and other struggles.
Of course I point out how trans women are often even more disproportionately affected by some of these issues because they are women and therefore relevant. It’s important for me to also point out that intersex individuals are left out by these statistics — but I do not derail the focus from women. Derailing that focus only serves to reinforce a system that oppresses me.
Not to mention, heterosexism/homophobia and cissexism/transmisogyny are both extensions of sexism. Sexism is systematic and it reinforces the concept that not only is there only “female” and “male”, but that “female” is less than “male”. The reason people assume that not meeting gender roles automatically makes you “gay” is because the construction of “female” and “male” gender roles are lined to heteropatriarchy in a system that Judith Butler describes the Heterosexual Matrix.
Basically, it’s a system that constructs male and female as more or less yin and yang. They need each other, but females are always less than males. They compliment and oppose each other. And queer people directly confront and contradict this idea. They contradict the idea that males and females are unequal and complimentary.
And trans people contradict the idea of gendered behaviours, ideas, and patterns as set in stone in any natural or social sense. I don’t find the identities of “male” and “female” problematic, but rather the extension to which people are forced to do certain things, embody certain behaviours, or have certain characteristics based on these qualities.
So, essentially, that is why I am a feminist. Despite the problematic issues with the label of “feminist”, I feel it is important to take it on. It is in my best interests to support ALL women in the interests of destroying a heteropatriarchy that denies the identity I do have forces me to take on an identity they characterise as lesser.
“Darmok, and Jalad… at Tanagra.”