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Monday, April 28, 2014

Multiple Perspectives: Patriarchy and Genderqueer Identity

There was a time when I didn't know how to approach feminism or a feminist identity. I saw that some feminists had defined different roles, both overtly and subtly, for men and women who want to come to a feminist identity or become allies to feminists and women generally. As a genderqueer person, I could not exclusively assign myself to either road. My gender itself defied attempts to anchor it to a particular position, much less a binary one, and I couldn't begin to understand how to do the complex work of unpacking my beliefs in a feminist context.

I'm happy to report that this is no longer the case for me, and I have feminist theory and philosophy to thank, in large part, for that shift. A few years ago, I took a feminist philosophy class at my university, part of my attempt to wrangle my ecology degree into something I could really get into. (I failed, by the way.) The texts that we read were frequently dense and academic, and they were counterbalanced by class discussions about our everyday lives and the applications of what we were reading. In feminist philosophy I found what I needed, and what had been lacking from the activist writing that I'd been exposed to. I found full-fledged, well-defended, and fascinating explanations of what gender itself was. I thrived on the questions and the explanations both. No easy slogans and catchphrases here-- and these had never helped me anyway, since my own gendered position in the world and within myself was so amorphous, and my own orientation toward patriarchy so complex. Here I found the meat and bones of gender theory, as well as the texts that had inspired many of the ways gender and sexuality are talked about in contemporary activist writing. 

The theory I read seemed to get inside me like a lockpick kit, unpacking and clarifying my experiences and beliefs, and I couldn't have been more ecstatic to have that happen. As I had this experience, something because quite clear to me: As a genderqueer person, I carried within me both the pain of being victimized by patriarchy as well as misogyny of my own. I was neither victim nor victor, neither purely oppressed nor oppressor, not even on the axis of gender alone. 

I am a genderqueer person who was assigned female at birth and raised "to be a woman," and I came out at the age of 16, in 2003. The world that I came out into was both similar and dissimilar from the one I experience today. Public consciousness about trans people did exist, but it was in its early stages and geographically disparate. While today I see young people in their mid-teens posting on Tumblr about their non-binary gender identities, this was not the case in 2003- at that time, it was difficult to find community even on the internet. There were few news stories about trans people, and they were sensationalistic and misgendering. When I began to explore my own identity, I knew about trans people solely from Jerry Springer. The trans community, both on and offline, tended to be older and much more binary-oriented. Older trans people who I met in person sometimes did not put much stock in non-binary identities or non-transitioning trans people; physical transition was the defining characteristic of transness, and most resources were oriented toward achieving it.

I speak about all of these things because I think that they lend some perspective to my own tumultuous early years as a trans-identified person. The emphasis on binary gender and transition for all trans people, as well as my own unexamined internalized misogyny, played major roles in my problematic thoughts and behavior. As a young genderqueer person, I believed that my only option was to identify as unequivocally male, especially in a public sense. Though I was femme in some ways, I focused on a core identity as a man and clung to it fiercely.

This insistence on maleness was only strengthened by the ways others interacted with me. I had to explain and defend my identity on a constant basis against people who attacked it in sexist ways. I was often told I wasn't a man because of various traits I had, whether physical, social or emotional. Today, I would refute these statements by questioning these binary and restrictive roles; I would bring the conversation back to respecting people's stated identity. Back then, I had no such tools. I defended myself by digging in and pointing out ways that I was masculine enough, man enough. But more importantly, I dug in by becoming more masculine-- by trying harder to pass, by flattening my personality and emotional affect, and by letting my misogynistic feelings remain strong within me. Even being sexually assaulted strengthened my misogyny, as I assigned fear and hatred to the body parts that I felt had "made me" vulnerable.

Looking back on this time, what amazes me is how similar my experience as a genderqueer trans boy mirror the experiences of cis men. Like many cis men, I felt insecure in my male identity and constantly wanted to prove myself. Like them, I had encountered threats to my manhood and sought to deal with those threats through my gender performance.

Like many cis men and boys, I adopted misogynistic attitudes as a way to differentiate myself from women and as a reaction against the power of women in my life. The circumstances were different in some cases-- for example, I was always afraid I'd be cast aside by a male lover in favor of a cis woman, and this played heavily into my insecurity about being trans, about being "gender trash." This caused me, in turn, to resent and hate cisgender women that I perceived as competitors and more "privileged" than myself. This is not an experience shared by many cis men, and yet the result was eerily similar- the perceived power of women around me caused me fear and loathing.

It is lucky for other people that my misogyny didn't become a bigger force for harm in the world. I don't usually date women, and I had primarily male friends. The women I did become friends with were "excluded," in my mind, from my generalized disdain for women. And I often kept my thoughts and feelings to myself.

Many years passed without a great deal of change in my attitudes. I continued to be intensely dysphoric about my body, and I continued to present myself as a trans man, with a relatively binary gender identity. Around me, people were embracing non-binary identities, and a culture was forming that allowed people to ably discuss these identities and their implications in non-academic language. A sort of non-binary revolution was occurring within the trans community as more and more people felt comfortable coming out into non-binary identities. It was a far cry from my experience, which had felt like being born into a dark wilderness. Now, some people are able to come out into already-formed, supportive communities-- something that still amazes me. My Facebook feed is peppered with posts from people from all over the left side of the political spectrum, supporting and validating trans identities.

Yet, even knowing all of this, several years ago I found myself still afraid to make the shift, even though my identity had always been genderqueer on the internal level. 

I pushed things to their maximum before I really began to reexamine my life. When I decided to take a closer look at my own identity, it was eight years later and I was on the bus to my doctor's office for a prescription for testosterone, the second time I would be taking the hormone. I had been lying in therapy, telling my counselor that I identified as male, afraid that any honesty about my non-binary feelings would put hormones forever beyond my reach. I never made it to my appointment that day because I got physically sick, probably from the stress and the knowledge that I was not doing what my heart really desired at that time, but what I thought I had to do to escape my fear. I stopped seeking testosterone and chest surgery for a while, stopped grasping at an identity; and I started looking at how to be myself.

It was around this time that I took my feminist theory class. When I look back on my experience around that time, it seems magical to me, and a little indescribable, as if someone had pried open the whole workings of gender and laid them out for me like a starmap, and I felt relief as all the little spaces were unfolded and exposed to the light of rationality and order. It still gives me pleasure to think about it. Meanwhile, something even more interesting was happening: I was understanding the gendered oppression I'd experienced myself, as a female-assigned person, a four-time survivor of sexual assault, and a gender variant person who doesn't perform femininity according to society's expectations. And I was taking in activist writing from the internet that was teaching me about the internal and sovereign definition of gender identity. Gender identity, I saw, was not something that could be defined by others, and nor did it have to conform to expected norms. There were no rules. With this realization, my desire to defend myself through internalized misogyny was fading. I began to see myself as worthy of existence and of whatever identity I chose to have. I felt love- and still do- for the community of non-binary and binary trans people who had argued and ranted and wrote and protested and made this theory of gender sovereignty valid in the real world and communicable to both allies and enemies.

For a long while, I struggled with femininity still, and with my fear of being perceived as feminine. Years of internalized misogyny had placed my femininity beyond my reach, behind a wall of my own making. I couldn't reach it through rational means alone; I couldn't think my way into a balanced way of being. I had to act. So I did something that changed me for the better: I periodically dressed femininely and I grew out my hair.

At first, I hated almost every moment of this practice, which I undertook at my college campus as well as when I went out around town. But intuitively, I trusted in myself and my desire to put myself through this. I lived within the femininity that I had run from, and I didn't perish. In fact, I gained new appreciations for my own femininity. I saw my hidden genderqueerness emerge, beautiful and delicate and free of the guilt I'd thrust upon it. This exercise started out feeling like a trial, but it became a kind of homecoming.

Today, I rarely dress in a way that society calls feminine, but the fear of doing so is mostly gone. What remains of it is justified: I know that unfortunately, dressing in a girly way might make others think I'm not really nonbinary, or they may get my pronouns (he/his) wrong. I might face catcalling or harassment sometimes. And better and more important than clothing is my internal sense of self: My gender exists on its own, without conformity to "masculine" norms. I draw strength from the people I see every day who live their nonbinary identities publicly, proudly, even if they don't adhere in every way to what society calls "androgynous." And I draw strength from the binary trans people who defend their identities from detractors who say they don't adhere to beauty, body, or personality norms for their identity. Their strength is my strength, and hopefully mine is theirs as well.

Nowadays, I live mostly without gender labels, but I'm aware of what has brought me to this point, of my past identifying publicly as a man and enduring many of the same psychological conditions as cis men and boys. I'm more aware of the threads of misogyny and patriarchial oppression that have affected my life. I want to be alert to these things always, because I don't think this work is done within myself, nor do I want it to be. It is fascinating work to do because it connects me to everything, and to millions of other people doing the work of untangling patriarchy within themselves, both as oppressors and as oppressed and sometimes as both.

For trans men and masculine-identifying people, it is crucial to examine one's experiences critically and ensure that patriarchial dynamics find no place to take root. For female-assigned people with gender dysphoria, this path can be complicated. It is important to remember that the impulse to differentiate oneself from women, girls, and femmes is not dissimilar from the experiences that shape misogyny in cis men and boys. It's crucial to find ways to actively resist this toxic socialization. Find opportunities to challenge the privileges assigned to people seen as male and masculine. Investigate ways that you can actively undermine these privileges or leverage them in a way that raises up women, girls, and femmes.

If someone places you in a female box and expects you to perform femininity, remember to challenge both the coercive gender assignment and the sexism in that act. If someone says you shouldn't do something because you're "a girl," say, "I don't identify that way, but girls can do anything they want. I personally know a woman who is a great (insert activity or occupation)." Don't let gender dysphoria and insecure masculinity shoulder into the place where feminism and critical thinking should rightly stand.

The result will be a stronger, more confident selfhood, one that stands on its own without leaning on women to define it's boundary, to define what it is not.

As a nonbinary person, I see myself from many perspectives, and I know that I have multiple experiences within frameworks of patriarchy and male supremacy. This is no longer as overwhelming as it once was, and it doesn't push me away from feminism. Instead, it is fascinating and it draws me into deeper dialogue. The impulse toward understanding is an impulse toward wholeness.


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Dylan Ce/Curius Creature is a 29 y/o nonbinary artist, disabled person, and writer. He is the co-founder of Cutlines Press, a digital collaborative publishing platform for queer and trans writers. Cutlines Press can be found on the web at www.cutlinespress.com. He is also the curator of Queer Zines tumblr at queer-zines.tumblr.com.



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