“In this country, lesbianism is a poverty — as is being brown, as is being a woman, as is being just plain poor. The danger lies in ranking the oppressions. The danger lies in failing to acknowledge the specificity of the oppression.” – Cherríe Moraga
Feminism has not always been kind to those who fit its narrow definitions of what constitutes a woman. It has often reinforced a notion of sexual difference, the gender binary, and the idea that men can’t be involved in feminism. As a male-bodied feminist who is both queer and genderqueer, I have had my share of issues with such gynocentrism in feminist activism. Are my experiences with heterosexism and cissexism not viable forms of discrimination through which I might be able to better understand the contours of sexism? Though there are clear limits to allyship, as Mia McKenzie of BlackGirlDangerous has duly noted, how can we increase male-identified and male-bodied involvement within feminism?
Besides the obvious answer, including men, how best can we move forward to make gender equality and equity issues of concern to both men and women, since sexism already impacts all sexes? Trans* inclusion, as I’ve written before, requires moving beyond sex in our activisms; so does male inclusion.
In December 1851, Sojourner Truth gave the speech in “Ain’t I A Woman?” A Black woman, she speaks of her experiences as a slave, a mother, and a believer in God. Her speech is short yet potent in its incisive economy:
“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?”
Just as Sojourner Truth struggled to identify with the white women and black men around, failing to be able to compartmentalize her oppressions, feminists and men have had difficulty reconciling their differences in order to collectively organize. For many in the Black feminist movement(s), such a disentangling of identities does little to redress the intersections of their oppressions. White women, then, did not know the sharpness of the whip; the black men, not the extent of sexual violence. And, regardless, ain’t she a woman?
Similarly, in “Am I Black Enough, Trans Enough, Woman Enough?,” Koko Jones discusses where she falls in “the maze of multiple identities” in terms of race, sex and gender. Her struggles to navigate and negotiate the tension between her multiracial embodiment of race as African-American, Native American and white, with her experiences growing up in black communities are one but many of the incongruities between lived experiences of people and the uniform identity categories that seek to encapsulate them. The ciscentric appraisal of her body as male, furthermore, conflicts with her identification as a trans* woman, causing her to beg the question of whether or not she is women or trans ‘enough.’ “Being judged on several levels is a tough thing to take at times,” she relates, musing that we “can start by discontinuing the propensity for us to judge one another.” How can we discontinue this propensity of all to discern and judge moments of difference?
Men have been engaging with causes that can be considered feminist for over a century. Parker Pillsbury fought for the rights of women and slaves in his time as an abolitionist. Jeremy Bentham fought for women and all people to have equal rights in every way. John Stuart Mill, who later married Harriet Taylor, wrote The Subjection of Women in 1869. These are but a few of the many examples of men standing up for women, feminism, and human rights. Despite this, “women only” spaces have been part and parcel to feminist community-building. While these spaces are certainly justifiable in certain instances, particularly Sapphic spaces, though not without their problems, they attest to a commitment of (some) women to trace the boundaries of these groups on the basis of sex and/or gender.
I’m not trying to create a “masculinist” space within feminism, or to endorse the usually misguided views of “anti-feminists,” but instead to ask that we find ways to involve men in feminism. It involves being inclusive of issues that male-identified and male-bodied people face – not under the moniker of men’s rights, but instead gender parity. Men experience domestic violence. Men experience sexual assault. Men engage in sex work. Sadly, campaigns to redress all of these issues sometimes fail to be inclusive of men and avoid blanket-statement gendering. The separation of women’s issues from men’s issues has dissociated and continually complicates their connection as issues of gender parity and equity. We cannot deny how discrimination and violence impact all of us or our loved ones to some degree in our daily lives.
But how? How can men be allies to women and feminists while also not overtaking their spaces and rerouting their discussions?
This summer, Michael Urbina drafted 101 everyday ways for men to be allies to women. In response to racist diatribes that resulted from this piece, he then commented further on the importance of feminism in men’s lives:
Essentially, all of these negative responses are telling me that simply because I’m challenging traditional expectations of masculinity, ones that many men in the United States have grown up with, that I must not be a real man who can survive in this world. I strongly encourage those who disagree with my perspective to have real dialogues, rather than just resort to “fuck you’s” and direct attacks.
His discussion eventually centers on why exactly men need feminism:
Why do men need feminism? Men need feminism because we really are hurt by the same system that oppresses women. Men need feminism because violence against women on local, national, and global scales continues to occur on a daily basis. Men need feminism because we are more likely to be victim of other men’s abuse and violence out of anger, frustration, and fear of change or difference. Men need feminism because there are hundreds, thousands, if not millions of young boys, teenagers, and grown men who hide some aspect of who they truly are out of fear and pressure to conform. To name a few reasons.
In an article for Ms. Magazine, author of Men and Feminism: Seal Studies, Shira Tarrant asserts, “Can men be feminists? Absolutely.” For her, “feminists are committed to addressing problems that happen every day.” With each day, “it seems, more men are getting on board with creating constructive solutions and positive change”, making room for “each of us to explore who we are, separate from gender constraints.” Her piece is critical of men as a monolith, attuned to examples of male-driven feminist activism. Yet she falls victim to the same misgivings as many feminists and activists who try to forge coalitions between different communities, by reinstating notions of hierarchy and ignoring her own biases that may dissuade her readers from allyship (such as her instance of mentalism.) Clearly, as with FEMEN, male perspectives cannot dominate the spaces of feminism. Men already are given more access to decision-making and vocal expression than women. That all said, we must find ways to connect and focus on our commonalities in order to begin to reformulate a feminism with men. Part of the Millenial generation’s potential lies in the possibility of activists creating new networks and points of alliance. How will we, men and others, begin to engage ethically in feminism?
Featured Image via the Telegraph