On Gender Part 2: Why I am not a Woman or a Feminist
Gender is a topic I've tangled with for years. I definitely don't have all the answers. I'm still exploring what it means to be a body that participates in human cultures and society. But these are my thoughts and feelings so far.
This is Part 2 in a three-part series On Gender.
Part 1: Dear Gender Binary, Why Are You Obsessed With My Genitals?
Part 3: Plucking the Web: Witches, Queers & Finding Community
(You can download a pdf of all three parts here: On Gender: The Complete Essay.)
When I was born, a doctor looked at my genitals and placed “female” on my birth certificate. I was named after my grandmother, labeled a “she,” and raised as a girl.
At different points in my life, I benefited from female-only spaces - both intentionally and unintentionally. I went to a girl’s high school, I attended a women’s liberal arts college, and I learned to pole dance in a women-only studio - all of which I was able to do because I had an F on my birth certificate.
I’ve had a lot of privilege because of my perceived-female body and the way my physical features and clothing style also matches with what mainstream American society considers “female dress code.” It’s easy for people to look at me and stick me into the box of “woman” and call it a day.
They aren’t threatened by my shaved legs or my earrings or my long hair. They aren’t confused that I have breasts and also wear dresses. And there’s almost a palpable comfort in finding out that I do things like cook or dance or “love nature.” It makes sense to them because in their eyes, I’m a woman - and that’s what women look like and do.
And then they find out that I don’t want children. Or that I’m a badass with a drill and hammer. Or that I usually don’t shave my armpits. Or that I’ve been in relationships with women, men, and genderqueer folk. But all of that’s still (kind of) ok because they just assume I must be a feminist - and that’s what feminists look like and do.
But I’m not a woman. Or a feminist.
And if I say that in response to someone who has actively labeled me (and people do actively label me, every day), most people will laugh, thinking I’m making a joke.
Or they roll their eyes, like, “Here we go again, one of those.” Or they simply ignore me because “obviously” I just want attention. Or they think I’ve been hurt by women and I just haven’t found my way back to the sisterhood, yet.
Sometimes I get an honest, “I’m sorry - I didn’t mean to assume” or a really inquisitive, “What do you mean?”
All of those responses are totally understandable. But no matter what, a person’s response tells me a lot about their communication style, their desire to connect, and their attitude about difference.
What Do You Mean?
I could say that I have never really felt like a woman. But what is more accurate is that the word “woman” feels as arbitrary to me as the “female” on my birth certificate. It is an identity that was handed to me, not by choice, but by society. And I don’t feel any resonance in the label or what it supposedly means about my body.
That's the short answer.
Here's the longer one...
Labels & Identity
As a herd species, we seem to understand ourselves in relationship to being part of a collective tribe. Our identity is a balance between an experience of the self and an experience of Others.
Being able to identify and label an Other makes it easier to navigate the world. If I can look at you and know in an instant what and who you are, then I can easily know how I relate to you.
Are you like me? Are we different? Are you in my tribe, or not? Are you a friend? A threat? A mild annoyance? An equal? Can I anticipate your behavior? Can I trust you? Can we collaborate?
Labelling each other based on appearance is really about an economy of time and energy. Instead of taking the time to know someone individually, we make a split-second, subconscious decision of how to categorize a stranger based on our learned lessons and created stories. And this changes how (or if) we approach, talk to, or treat them.
Whether it's about perceived gender, race, age, nationality, ability, or any other trait, we look at each other and assume we know things about the person based on how similar or different they look to Others we've known or learned about.
Everyone does this. This is normal. The issue is when we think that our assumptions are accurate. Because most of the time they’re not. They are simply assumptions based on our lens of perception: our learned lessons and our created stories.
It would be ok if our assumptions ended with our personal thoughts about someone. But they don't. Our assumptions change the way we treat each other - not only in one-on-one scenarios, but also in our social, legal, and financial institutions.
Assumption of Sameness
In a gender binary, it is assumed that by virtue of being assigned female at birth that I’m going to behave in predictable and prescribed ways. And that I’m going to have lots in common with other people who have also been assigned female at birth.
But even if I and another person have similar genitalia, we will experience our genitalia in very different ways (whether as a source of pleasure, pain, utility, or shame) depending on our personal, cultural, and social experiences.
And while there will definitely be similarities (because that is the nature of bodies and of culture), there are also going to be lots and lots of differences, too (because that is the nature of bodies and of culture).
Let’s pretend a self-identified woman who was assigned female at birth meets me for the first time. She loves being a woman and a female, and enjoys sex with men. She feels connected to her body's shape and function, she loves that she can give birth, and she feels comfortable with most of the traditional "feminine" roles that have been taught to her.
And she sees my dress, my breasts, my long hair, my earrings, my hips, and she assumes that I am a woman, too.
She might immediately feel comfortable around me because (she thinks) she knows what to expect from me. It’s assumed we speak the same gender language. That we have been raised to feel and think about our bodies the same way. That we understand each other. That we are sisters.
And so she might behave in a certain way - use a certain tone of voice - maybe feel comfortable touching my shoulder - or telling me a secret - or laughing like we have an inside joke ("haha, you know how men are…”). Or she might talk to me as if we share the same concerns about our bodies, or our relationships, or our careers.
Maybe she even thinks she is physically safe in my presence because why would a woman hurt another woman? Or maybe she even flirts with me a little because she thinks I won’t take it seriously, since I’m (probably) sexually attracted to men.
She perceives me as a woman and makes an assumption of sameness. In her eyes, I look like her, therefore I must behave, think, and feel like her.
Are You In or Out?
I am not offended by this assumption, I just don’t find it to be true. She’s just guessing about my body. She’s determining - based on my appearance - that she knows who I am. That she knows how I experience my body. And that she knows where I fit into society.
She doesn’t ask me.
And if I contradict her assumptions, or I clarify my preferences, I’m very often met with confusion, with silence, or with outright policing of my identity.
I'm just in touch with my masculinity. Or I must hate men. I'm a feminist. Or too liberal. I have not met the right person yet. I'm too young (give it time). I must hate women. No, I must hate myself! I'm selfish. I've obviously been wounded. Or I'm jealous of women. I'm lonely. No, I'm entitled! I'm out of touch with my vagina, womb, and the essence of femininity. I'm in the sisterhood, but I just haven't woken up yet.
All of those judgments have nothing to do with me as an individual and are just based on her own lens of perception about what it means to be a body in our society.
“So why reject the label ‘woman’ completely?” you might ask. “Why not just be a feminist woman? I mean, isn’t that what feminism is all about? Giving women the opportunity to redefine what it means to be a woman?”
Yes, you’re right.
But I’m not interested in redefining womanhood. I think the whole concept of "womanhood" itself is problematic because it is part of a dualistic, gender binary.
But politics aside, I really do not feel split up into a feminine and masculine side. I do not feel a separation in my gender. It's all just me.
Am I a Man?
The day after I graduated from college, I shaved my head.
I did it because my hair had been a central part of my identity as a child and I felt I was stepping into a new phase of my life. I saw graduating from college as a rite of passage and I wanted to mark it with ceremony.
For a few months after that, I was called “sir” and “he” by random strangers. People would see me in the women’s bathroom and do a double-take. They saw my shaved head and my cargo pants, and assumed, “man.”
It was usually just momentary. As soon as I opened my mouth and my high pitch voice came out, or they took a closer look at my facial features, or they saw my breasts, there was a look of shock and then embarrassment as they apologized and switched to she/her pronouns.
This experience (which was purely accidental - I had shaved my head for my own rite of passage, not in order to try out a different gender expression) was really helpful in clarifying that I don’t feel any more comfortable with being assumed male than I do with being assumed female.
I just don’t like assumptions.
But what’s more than that, I don’t feel a gender divide inside of myself.
I feel like a whole person with multi-faceted aspects to my personality. My identity is like liquid, flowing in and out of the spaces of me, fluid and shifting, taking the shape of my life circumstances. I do not feel like I belong to a sisterhood any more than I feel connected to a brotherhood.
For me, it's more about personhood.
Some people love the gender binary - they really align with it as a system and as an identity model. (And that includes a lot of trans folks!) It makes sense to them as a system and a language, and that’s how they want to operate. They feel comfortable using the terms "man" or "woman" to describe themselves and they enjoy using normative gender roles to express themselves.
Some other people say that the gender binary is not actually a pair of opposites; it’s a spectrum, a line connecting the two opposites of male and female so that it forms an axis of identity. They argue that people can exist on either end of that spectrum or somewhere in between. And they feel comfortable existing somewhere on that spectrum or maybe even describe themselves using binary terms (like feminine or masculine).
That's great, too!
And whether you love the binary as a two-point diagram, or you see it as a spectrum, all of that is totally fine with me. I don’t want to take away someone else’s right to identify as a woman or as a man or as anything else.
I just personally don’t express myself in those terms because I don’t experience my gender as being split up into two sides.
I recognize that some people love the binary and want to maintain it. Really, that's fine with me. I'd just prefer that the binary not be the only way that we structure our society and our institutions.
I'd like to have a more inclusive system, one that allows for the plurality of the human experience. One that focuses on personhood - where the emphasis is on our shared humanity, in all of its diversity and complexity.
So you might be wondering, if I’m not a woman or a man, what words do I use to identify myself?
Sometimes I say I’m a non-binary person. But even the term “non-binary” doesn’t sit 100% comfortably with me because it centralizes the binary system and it sets me up in opposition to it (like an Either/Or scenerio - you're either in the binary, or your out of it).
I’m more of an Also/And kind of person. I am comfortable with the paradox of people existing in poles, on spectrums, and outside of it all completely!
So sometimes I say I'm genderqueer. I love the word queer - what it implies about being out of the ordinary, beyond normative, and inclusive of all things Other.
Or sometimes I just say that I'm a person.
A creature. An organism.
The F Word
Ok. Now let’s get political. Why don’t I call myself a Feminist?
It’s my understanding that there are lots of different kinds of Feminisms and I know that some of them are more inclusive than others. But as a movement, I see it as still deeply invested in the gender binary.
It relies heavily on the dualistic concepts of femininity and masculinity, even if it’s trying to redefine them. Because of my own experience of gender fluidity, I don’t feel any resonance with that binary worldview.
Even the flavors-of-Feminism that are more inclusive of other gender identities still centralize one type of experience - womanhood. The liberation and inclusion of all the other gender experiences is supposed to just be implied as tag alongs (as if liberating just one gender identity - women - will liberate everyone).
But just shifting the focus down the binary line from one end of the spectrum (manhood) toward the other end of the spectrum (womanhood) does not do enough to challenge the dominance of the binary system as a whole.
It continues to centralize one experience as the keyholder for the rest.
I bow in deep recognition to the self-identified Feminists who’ve come before that have paved the way for (some) women to have access to healthcare, better pay, legal protection, and government representation. I have benefited - both passively and actively - from the work they did.
I recognize that present day Feminists are still working hard to fight for equal access for women, though there’s still a long way to go in including all types of marginalized women in the mainstream movement, including trans women, women of color, non-Christian women, and disabled women.
I’m really saddened that Feminism has also been coopted by the media and consumer-culture. Caring about women’s equality is trendy - especially now that it means that women will spend their money on products that have been rebranded as “empowering.” It is a (not so new) niche market.
Feminism has become a buzz word. And while there are plenty of Feminists who are definitely trying to take back the word from advertising and the consumer-culture, it’s just not a movement that I want to align with.
I can still be deeply concerned with social justice without being a Feminist or a woman.
My status as an assigned-female-at-birth does not mean that I am obligated nor automatically bonded to another person who was also assigned-female-at-birth. I care about all types of self-identified girls and women because I care about other living creatures, not because we hypothetically do or don’t both have vaginas.
It is possible to care about others and to feel deeply committed to protecting their freedom without identifying as the same kind of person that they are. I can collaborate on issues with Feminists, women, and girls, without being one myself.
It’s the same way I feel about religious freedom. I can collaborate with Muslims, Buddhists, and Wiccans, while not being one myself.
“Wake up,” I can hear a very famous Feminist saying. “There are real issues in the world - like rape, forced marriage, and genital mutilation.”
“Get over it. You’re just trying to be special,” another says.
“Get in line - we need to deal with women’s oppression first, before we start caring about breaking down the gender binary.”
And that is all just proving a key point in my worldview: that we are surrounded by exclusionary cultures bent on assuming, silencing, and controlling our bodies through a hierarchy of needs that puts some bodies’ protection above others.
In this exclusionary system, you can exist as long as your presence - your needs - are not an extra burden on someone else (namely, those who already have privilege). It’s more important for some individuals to protect their privilege and to stay comfortable, than it is for everyone to be heard, feel safe, and be provided for.
I saw the same exclusionary tactics happening with the fight for gay marriage in the USA (a hard-won and wonderful victory, don’t get me wrong). But there were some folks in the LGBTQ+ community who were telling trans folks and genderqueer folks to “wait their turn.” That “we” had to win this fight first, then later “we” could turn our attention to other issues.
But then “we” are knee-deep in the Either/Or paradigm again. It’s either my voice or your voice. It’s either my rights or your rights.
It’s either us or them.
But do we have to choose whose identity is more important? What kind of a truly supportive community plays this kind of oppression-competition game? As if we’re all lining up at the same table, begging for scraps from some ruler, and pushing each other out of the way to be the first, just so we get the biggest bone.
When I request that you do not call me “woman,” “girl,” “sister,” “girlfriend,” “goddess,” or “lady,” I’m not just trying to be special or difficult.
And it’s not because I’m insulted or offended by the words themselves. It’s the meaning behind the words, the assumption that you are making about my body, what I want, and how I should be treated.
Please don’t say, “for all the women here,” and look directly at me. Because you are labeling me based on what you perceive to be true about “people who look like me.” You are assuming you know my body, my preferences, and my personality.
And by extension you are telling me how my body should relate with the rest of society.
You are erasing my agency, my individuality, and my freedom to name myself.
“Typical Generation Y. Spoiled and entitled. You want your cake and to eat it to.”
Hell yeah, I want to be able to eat my cake! Not only that, but I want to decide what kind of cake it is I’m eating. In fact, I’d like to be involved in making the cake - in every step, from seed germination to composting the leftovers. And I want everyone else to have the same ability if they want it, too.
And I’m so excited that I live at a time in history where that is possible - where we have the tools and the compassion to make it a reality!
I want everyone to be free from the systemic violence of a society that tries to mechanize and control all of our bodies just so that some bodies can maintain their place at the table.
And if it sounds like I’m angry, that’s because I am. But more than angry, I’m hungry. And I know a lot of starving people who want to participate freely in the meaning-making of their lives without the body police deciding what portion of the meal they get.
One central aspect of all of us sharing a place at the table is the right to identify ourselves. I recognize it is not the only aspect necessary for true social justice, but language is indeed very powerful.
If you don’t believe me, just ask a lawyer. Language - words - labels that identify are everything when it comes to governance and law. And changing our language to be more inclusive is essential for true liberation because words have the potential to defend, protect, imprison, or, in some countries, kill.
So the concept of inclusive language is not just about being “politically correct” or “emotionally sensitive.” It’s about the fundamental rights of a human body to decide how it will live, function, and thrive in society.