Ideas of genders outside of the strict female/male binary are enjoying unprecedented levels of attention at the moment – in mainstream media outlets, feminist websites, LGBT and student campaigns, popularised and disseminated through social media platforms Twitter and Tumblr. Genderqueer, agender, neutrois, bigender, gender-fluid, androgynous – a wash of varied and various nomenclature that some group under the label ‘non-binary’.
I’ve been out as transgender and androgynous/genderqueer for half my life, and an ardent feminist since before I knew that there was a word for it. I have yet to meet a person with a ‘non-standard’ gender who isn’t a feminist and/or womanist. Trans feminist pioneer Leslie Feinberg is cited by many of my peers as an inspiration, and many of us found hope for a world that included us in the works of Judith Butler, Jack Halberstram and Del la Grace Volcano.
But, for a certain subset of feminists, an acceptance and celebration of gender variance is counted as antithetical to the core values of feminism itself. As someone who was assigned a ‘girl’ at birth there are some who have called me a traitor for my refusal to call myself female; who argue that people not comfortable with designating themselves women or men (or solely women or men) are upholding sexist stereotypes. That, even if we had a valid point in terms our personal lives, we’re taking up vital space, time and attention that should be spent on the ‘real’ issues. That we should stop being divisive.
I can see, in an oppositional, binary-entrenched way, the way I must seem to them. But I can’t condone it. For me, being genderqueer and being feminist are wound around each other in a way that I couldn’t untangle, even if I wanted to. And I think that that symbiotic relationship can only serve to help feminism as a whole, if we let it.
1. Gender plurality frees us from an immutable, ahistorical idea of gender
One of the main stumbling blocks I’ve found to spreading an awareness of the possibility of freedom from a patriarchal system is the widespread sophistry that “it’s just the way it is”. “Boys will be boys”, “it’s always been this way”. But an examination of the history of the gendered categories we use, an awareness of new terms springing into existence, an acknowledgement of cultural differences in how we classify women, men, both and neither, shows us that change is possible. That change has always been possible. That there’s nothing new under the sun when it comes to human diversity – but that we’re always inventing new ways of seeing, new ways of understanding our cultures.
‘Gender’ is such a nebulous concept – a word to describe individual variation, a hierarchical system of punishment and reward, a way to name the self to the self. The more we can recognise just how vast and changeable that concept is, the more we can explode the limitations patriarchy places on us.
There’s a reason why I hesitate to use the term ‘non-binary’ to describe only those who are not men and women – because if the binary cannot include us all, then it cannot include us all. It is never to say that everyone should call themselves genderqueer or agender – but it is to say that each person’s individual experience of what makes them a man, or a woman, or something else, is valid. What a person’s body and life means to them must be approached as real – we can’t attempt to apply a standard meaning to unique and dynamic experiences. We seek commonality – but only through an acceptance of diversity, not an erasing of it.
3. We can catalogue the full extent of misogynistic oppression and abuse
Patriarchy, overwhelmingly, hurts women the most – but misogyny harms nearly everyone. Naming the problem is the first step to solving it – and we cannot solve the problem of patriarchy, or kyriarchy, without acknowledging the extent of its damage. The idea of a binary gender system has been used to punish, to brutalise, to silence; naming its crimes and attempting to heal the destruction caused helps us to move forward in a better way, towards a better system of understanding.
4. Self-determinism + dismantling of oppressive systems = feminism in action
When asked to define feminism, some feminists say “it’s about choice”. I agree, but think the sentence needs finishing. “Feminism is about choice – and the creation of a society that allows all compassionate choices”. To come out as a non-standard gender is not just to celebrate self-determinism, but to strike a blow at a patriarchy that denies us freedom and justice, along gendered lines. It might be a personal blow – it might, through activism, through visibility, be a blow on a wider scale.
The question is not “should feminism allow gender plurality?” – we are already here, deeply embedded in the feminist movement, and have been for a long time. Better, I think, is the question is: “where can we go from here – as women, men and everybody else – and how can we use what we’ve learnt as individuals for the benefit of us all?”
Photo: Social Vella
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