Written by Rachel Levy
I have been a self-identified, vocal feminist for a decade. My mother raised me to follow all of my dreams in confidence: gender never served as a real limitation to me when I was a child. Still, my progressive upbringing and dedicated family could not shield me from the destructive ways in which young girls are taught to become women. By the beginning of high school, I understood the world as a cruel, oppressive place for my half of the population. Being a woman seemed to mean starving and belittling myself, making sure that I was accompanied at night, and allowing men to grab my ass at their discretion. I did not want any part in that and became desperate to discover alternative ways to be a woman, ways which I would not find hurtful. Needless to say, when I realized that there was a movement of others who were pissed off and ready for the fight, I was overjoyed. I wanted, more than anything, to make other feminist friends and become part of larger collective feminist action.
As I have matured and evolved, so has my feminism. I have come a long way since the days I blasted Bikini Kill on my way to school and wrote riot grrrl mantras all over my freshman biology textbooks. During my first years of high school I was a lone feminist fighter. Feminism back then served as less of a community building tool than as a mechanism of vital resistance. It encouraged me to identify my needs and to not only say “yes” and “no” but “fuck you!” to other people’s demands and bullshit social expectations. Since high school, I have been fortunate to befriend and collaborate with a number of other feminists of many genders. My integration into feminist and queer spaces has, for the most part, far surpassed my expectations. I have been able to learn and grow as a feminist; these communities have pushed me to challenge my own feminist philosophies, as well as to redefine the peripheries and limitations of what feminism has to offer and to whom.
When I first started to call myself a feminist, I was identifying myself as a victim of patriarchy. Feminism taught me that my personal was indeed political; it became a critical lens that helped me name the overarching systems that played a role in formulating many of my negative experiences as a girl. As I was exposed to more and more gender oppression, my negative view of gender as an oppressive social structure became exponentially worse. I was let down by my male friends for passively participating in patriarchy as clueless or otherwise apathetic bystanders. I was even more disappointed by my female friends who refused to acknowledge that anything was even wrong. Adhering to gender roles seemed to prevent people from resisting and I therefore believed that gender was a force that needed to be ultimately destroyed.
Today, while I don’t necessarily think that the master’s tools are always capable of dismantling his house, I certainly do see them as capable of subversively turning against the master to really fuck shit up. I no longer think that the solution to eradicate gender oppression is to do away with gender. Some of my friends who closely identify with one or many genders have pushed me to re-evaluate this original approach. Doing away with gender is both impossible and invalidating. Taking away or otherwise ignoring gender strips people of their histories and denies them their stories. Destroying peoples’ experiences becomes yet another form of violence.
Community members have helped me appreciate the ways gender can actually be a productive and positive force. Last year, I volunteered at a failing Baltimore City elementary school. The teacher I worked with presented himself as traditionally masculine with a low bass voice, firm glare, and commanding presence. Over the course of the year, I paid attention to how much of a constructive influence he was. The moment he walked into a room, children who were misbehaving would sit down and look up attentively. They were not scared of this teacher; to the contrary, they respected him. He acted as a father figure to most of the children who attended that school. As I got to know him better, I realized that his traditional masculinity helped his students trust him, and that he knowingly took full advantage of that. He provided an example of an emotionally intelligent, strong individual who was able to talk about feelings and communicate rather than escalate interpersonal problems. In doing this, he showed his students an example of a healthy masculinity. This teacher is only one of a multitude of examples of positive uses of gender. I am really impressed and encouraged by the radical reclamation of masculinities, femininities, and all sorts of other non-binary gender identities and presentations in feminist, queer, and even some mainstream circles. They have helped me find better ways to fit into and explore my own gender identity. I have found myself taking new ownership over my cis femininity. Being a girl doesn’t hurt anymore, as I once feared that it always would.
I think I once saw gender as being an entirely oppressive force before, a force where one group of people (men) learns how to subjugate another group of people (woman). This mentality was binary and ignored the complicated ways in which gender serves as both a normalizing and transgressive force. Certain gender ideals, ideals which are impossible for most of us to ever achieve, permeate every element of society. We are all taught how to discipline ourselves and others so that we can mold to acceptable gender binaries. People of all genders are restricted by this. Since entering feminist and queer spaces, I have been fortunate to hear the stories of a few male-identified and non-binary folks. As examples, my male-identifying friend D was beaten as a child for not acting manly enough. And my non-binary identifying friend C has nearly crumbled under the pressure to behave like a girl. Even though women are often the most direct targets of gender violence, I have to remind myself that gender violence can impact anybody.
Now that I understand the contribution of self-discipline to gender roles, I am more conscious of the ways in which I police my own gender and sexuality. As a result, I have become a whole lot nicer to myself. Self love is a process, of course, but feminism has definitely empowered me to move in the right direction. I feel pretty confident today at the age of twenty four, and I think that a lot of that is because I was introduced to feminism during my formative years. Feminism has guided me through so much by teaching me how many possibilities there always are, as well as how to make the best decisions for myself. This sense of agency has helped me feel like less of a victim; in fact, I have more or less relinquished my victim identity. Instead of weakening myself by identifying as a victim, I am moving forward by identifying as a resistor and survivor.
Despite my positive growth experiences within feminist and queer communities, I find myself becoming increasingly frustrated with these spaces. There is a lot of policing of identity and privilege which often derail otherwise productive conservations. How inclusive should feminism be? How inclusive can feminism be? There are a number of blurry lines, and even folks with the best intentions are not always the best at navigating them. Sadly, spaces which uphold values that are contrary to the prevailing norms of society are still not immune to overarching systems of hierarchy. Unfortunately, minorities and non-female identifying/cis folks have often been excluded from feminist dialogues, similarly to how women have been excluded from human rights dialogues. In an effort to make feminist and queer communities more inclusive, many people begin competing in the “Oppression Olympics” to find out who is the most oppressed and thus deserves to be heard over others. I am sickened by this constant fetishization of marginality. Still, despite my frustrations, I wholeheartedly believe that feminism will and must evolve in order to adapt to community concerns. I can personally attest to having witnessed radical transformations within some of my own feminist spaces over just the past couple of years. Just this past January, I attended the QUORUM FORUM (Queers Organizing for Radical Unity and Mobilization) in my home city of New York. The other QUORUM FORUM attendees always made a point to ask what gender pronouns I preferred whenever we began a conversation. After years of running a feminist discussion and political group, taking enough college courses to earn a BA in Women’s Studies, directing The Vagina Monologues, parading in the Dyke March, co-editing a feminist zine etc. QUORUM FORUM marked the first time that I was ever asked about my preferred pronouns. I honestly never thought that this would ever take place, and it gave me hope to push even harder. This is just one of many examples of small yet monumental changes within my immediate feminist communities. I hope that as more communities and individuals alike challenge the current limitations of feminism, the rest of us will listen so that we can collectively move forward.