I glance at my phone and see a red number – fifteen – in the corner of my Twitter app. I don’t even have to open it to know what I’m getting notifications about.
About a month ago I made the arguably grave error of feeding the trolls. That is to say, I decided to rebuke some guy who was arguing that the term “mansplaining” was sexist. (Before you rush to the comments, this article is not about whether or not “mansplaining” as a term is sexist – though it would likely behoove you to stop reading now if you think it is, as you don’t understand what sexism is).
With regard to this Twitter feud, for about a month I was solidly getting notifications both from people who agreed with the dude in question, and (overwhelmingly) from people who agreed with me. Primarily women, retweeting what I’d said, quoting me, seconding my points with their own. “Look at this guy! Being a good male feminist. This guy gets it.”
And I’m torn. Firstly, I don’t deserve praise for telling this dude that male privilege exists. I shouldn’t be taken more seriously because I’m being perceived as unbiased. And secondly, because I’m passing off my points as second hand experience when they’re not. They’re first hand. But I don’t want to derail the discussion with, “Hey, I’m Felix, I’m a trans man. Male privilege definitely exists. I experience it in my everyday life now that I’m not being seen as a woman all the time”.
(For the record, I have done that in past online arguments. It goes one of two ways: either the cis male parties stop taking me seriously because my objectivity has been compromised, or the conversation starts to look like this: “Are trans men real men? How can you have experienced female oppression if you say you were never a woman? Isn’t gender a social construct? How can gendered oppression be real if gender isn’t real?”, and every shade of missing the point in between.)
This weird inner conflict, second guessing myself, thinking myself into knots until I feel inexplicably guilty – it happens a lot with me. I think it has a lot to do with my “feminist origin story” (which involves much less spandex than the average origin story).
Context time: feminism was the first ideology that stuck for me. Yeah, I was an aggressive atheist for a while, but I outgrew that particular brand of bile when I was 14 or so. Aged 17, feminism, specifically in relation to pop culture criticism because that’s what I like, was a big part of my identity. This is important because at that point I had not yet uncovered the two other things that now greatly inform who I am and how I see the world: my queerness and my transness.
When I realised that I wasn’t one hundred percent straight, I looked at it through a feminist lens. “What does it mean to be a queer woman? How does queerness shape how I see the world and how the world sees me? How does this affect my feminism?” And that was fine. Long gone are the days of the lavender menace, meaning that being a queer lady feminist is a-okay. Some circles view it as preferable, even.
Then, two years after my “feminist awakening”, I realised that I was trans. That I was a man. Am a man. Frankly, it threw a massive spanner in the works. Right when I’d been trying really hard to accept myself as a woman, to purge my mind of femmephobia and internalised misogyny, something clicked and there it was.
And, to be completely honest, it was terrifying. Because the feminist movement, even on an intersectional level, is far from unified when it comes to the place of men in feminism.
I’m going to be speaking in terms of men in general because I think that’s important. There are a lot of intersectional feminists who will give trans men free passes when it comes to acceptable feminist behaviour, passes that they would never give to cis men. While I understand some obvious differences apply, especially when it comes to experiences of oppression and “what it’s like to be a woman”, I don’t accept these free passes.
They feel like I’m being sneaked in a back door, and on the way in I’m having “We know you’re really one of us” whispered in my ear. It feels degrading and it inflames my imposter complex. I’ve never felt like a woman. I tried really hard, but I couldn’t do it. When I was passing as a woman, I could invade spaces not meant for me all I wanted because I looked like a woman. Because I thought I was a woman. But now that I know I’m not, that’s not an acceptable excuse for me to make, and I shouldn’t let others make that excuse for me.
On top of that, there’s an insane level of hypocrisy within facets of the movement when it comes to deciding which trans people are allowed in certain spaces. It is far too frequently the case that trans men and non-binary people who were female assigned at birth will be allowed into feminist safe spaces, but trans women and non-binary people who were male assigned at birth will not be. It’s often explained by thinly veiled transmisogyny or something about the inherent aggressiveness of the penis – despite the fact that some trans women and transfeminine people don’t have penises, or that so much of feminism is about rebuking biotruths – but I’m getting off topic, this isn’t a rail against TERFs right now.
So I find myself asking, “Where do men fit into feminism?”
Not “How can this cause that is primarily for women (and for good reason) benefit the privileged group more?”, but “Is there a place in feminist movements for discussing masculinity and the male gender without distracting from the more pressing issues at hand, which do tend to be women’s issues?”
Would such discussion require separatist movements along the same vein of black feminism or queer feminism or disabled feminism? Because, let’s face it, if someone was organising a male feminist group which was closed to men only, it would likely get pegged as closer to an MRA group than a third wave intersectional feminist faction.
I’m playing devil’s advocate somewhat here, because frankly, I don’t know where I stand. I just know I probably care. I generally disagree with people who say outright that men should not call themselves feminists but feminist allies (because feminism is ostensibly about gender and “male” is a gender, albeit the one treated as a default). I am, however, in the camp that dictates that in large feminist organisations and discussions, men shouldn’t speak over the experiences or concerns of women, and should work to elevate women’s voices.
On the other other hand, I shouldn’t feel like an asshole when I, say, point out how the reproductive rights of men who can get pregnant, such as myself, are near totally ignored in discussions of abortion. I shouldn’t feel like I’m stepping into a conversation where it isn’t my place.
Running the very real risk of sounding like one of those guys who thinks feminists should sit down and listen to the men for once, I do think there should be at least some discussion of where men fit into all of this. Not as a distraction from greater issues, not as a side door for men to take over. One of the things that makes intersectional feminism so fantastic is that it does try to encompass the many, many issues that have been utterly screwed by an unjust patriarchal system. Men are, yes, on the top of the heap of screwed people, but we are screwed all the while
I’m going to stop before I dig myself into a hole I can’t get out of. In short: where do men fit into feminism? Should we be considered allies to the cause as opposed to white knights slaying the oppressive beast that is patriarchy (*heavy sarcasm implied*)? And would it be useful to have spaces for discussing male issues? Should all white cisgender straight men burn in hell (*more implied sarcasm*)?
Some things to think about, from a man who has not always known he was one. Thanks for reading. *Tips fedora*