When I say that I don’t want my place in society to be male, I don’t mean that I’ve been acculturated to my female socialization and don’t feel comfortable being interacted with in a way that takes me out of a female gender role. When I say that, it’s not a statement of adhering to the part of the gender binary I got assigned to at birth and having that place in gender schema.
What I mean is that hegemonic masculinity makes me so viscerally uncomfortable. I don’t think that either masculinity or femininity are inherently bad or anything, because I think in drawing a distinction between maleness/masculinity and femaleness/femininity, I think we can complicate and expand our understanding of them to break the heteronormative mold that feminism started from. When I refer to hegemonic masculinity, I mean maleness as it functions in society.
I’m not saying I am viscerally uncomfortable with all embodied maleness (meaning men, in particular masculine men), but with maleness there comes power and privilege because society is patriarchal. The way men are socialized and the way maleness is regarded in society makes it much easier for people with male privilege to fall into abusing this power in a multitude of ways, without even realizing it. It happens in this insidious way in that it’s established as how it’s always been, how it’s supposed to be, and is promoted, rewarded, and reinforced in all these subtle ways. All of this means that not abusing male privilege must begin with consciously being aware of it, and actively unlearning it. Male privilege, like white privilege and cis privilege and really all other privileges, are embodied, and cannot just be unlearned just through theory, the body is always already implicated in theory to begin with.
Men are obviously not the only ones who need to unlearn these things though, because in a society that promotes patriarchy, sexism, and misogyny, women have internalized misogyny, and at a deeper level feminine people in general have internalized femmephobia. As a woman who is a feminist, I am always actively working to unlearn internalized misogyny and femmephobia.
Because I was socialized as female, I wasn’t taught sexism the same way boys are. But I will never forget how scary what boys are taught is, as someone who has been on the receiving end of sexism and misogyny. Once the blinders come off, it’s impossible to unsee the mechanisms at work behind patriarchy, in which the gears are sexism, misogyny, and femmephobia, and the lubricant that keeps this system running so smoothly is hegemonic masculinity in all its various forms.
Bodies that were assigned female at birth are not predestined for femininity. It’s not some innate natural thing programmed in by lack of an SRY gene, guaranteed to have manifested at puberty or your model’s defective. I don’t know why we ever thought that a tomboy like me, upon hitting puberty, would suddenly undergo metamorphosis into a beautiful feminine lady, as though with menstruation, someone like me would bleed off the masculinity and gender-nonconformity to take my place as a proper woman in society’s eyes.
But at the same time, I do think that bodies regardless of what they get assigned by birth might have some sort of predisposition (which is not the same as predestination) to some combination of masculinity and femininity, and everyone’s is different at any given point of time because once a person is born they become a member of society and socialization immediately and forever beyond that point becomes a confounding variable, meaning we will NEVER be able to identify what biology “causes” gender identity the way so many misguided and more often than not misintentioned scientists have tried to pinpoint, because the effects of socialization can never be controlled for and stripped away from the body because our experiences are written into our bodies.
I respect and admire the faabulous femmes who boldly assert that their femininity is not a product of nature to be consumed by a greedily expectant society, their femininity is deliberate and it is for them. But at the same time, I take issue with the voluntarism that this implies, which is something I’m deeply troubled by in a lot of queer discourse surrounding gender, at least in queer communities these days. I’m troubled by it because I feel like sometimes this line of thinking downplays the reality of cis privilege. My body cannot perform femininity, even deliberately, the way so many strong femmes out there, of all bodies and assignments, can with such ease.
I tried. I tried so damn hard in my childhood to train myself to be feminine, but my body never quite got it right. Society has always tried to beat the gender-nonconformity out of me, my body has always been something to correct. And some things I did learn. God knows I wasn’t impervious to my female socialization, as “How can I help you young man” gets changed into an embarrassed apology upon hearing the feminine, animated, unimposing inflection my voice unconsciously takes on whenever I ask for help. As I am always first to apologize in a conflict, if I haven’t already subordinated myself enough to avoid conflict altogether. Not to say that feminine always is submissive or that either is always bad, but these are some aspects of my performative femininity that I’ve grown conscious of. But there’s so much femininity that society didn’t beat into my body.
I know how to perform femininity because I know what it looks like, so that if I’m afraid of being read ambiguously enough that I’ll get kicked out of the women’s restroom, I can perform a caricature of femininity, strutting into the bathroom a hyperbole, with forced posture, an exaggerated sway in my hips, and a gossipy and animated conversation to nobody on my phone complete with that socal girl cadence and vocal fry as I say into my phone “hey so like, I gotta use the ladies’ room real quick, call you back, yeah?” But it’s an act. That’s me putting on drag so I can pee safely. When I don’t monitor my body and consciously perform femininity, my body relaxes into effortless muscle memory of comfortable masculinity, not pronounced enough to be manly, but enough to be (tom)boyish.
I do not trust the discourse in queer theory that seems to want to divorce queerness from bodies, and under the vehemently flailing flag of “gender is a social construct!” saying cishets can be queer and gender-conforming cis people can be genderqueer, because fuck norms. Yes, gender is a social construct. Yes, fuck norms. Nobody feels that more strongly than me. But gender being a social construct does not mean it is real, it in fact means that it is very real, and it is something embodied, it creates us and how we are treated in society, the effects gender has on bodies are very. real. Fucking norms shouldn’t give you a free pass to appropriation with impunity. I don’t believe in a system of identity policing. But I think people should be conscious of whether they might be appropriating, what sorts of privileges they have, who they might be speaking over and disempowering, how much space they’re taking up and from whom. That’s what radical should mean.
Radical should never be an ideology existing separately from the groups that get marginalized, abused, silenced, and erased, one expansive stylish umbrella only letting people under if the coats complement the colors of what shields them from the rain, while those who don’t match the style get washed away in the storm, while those under can be so surrounded by fashion fad activists that the crowd is loud enough and populous enough to down out the sounds and view of the pouring rain as well as the faces and cries of the people still weathering it.
Radical, especially from a place of privilege, should look more like people with umbrellas of any sort noticing how many people are in the rain without an umbrella, and offering them shelter, banding together with others with umbrellas to try to seal the gaps between them to shelter more of the cold shivering people, to create a colony of umbrellas, not colony as in how the white man invades and takes over, but colony as in an organism, like the Man-o-War, comprised of multiple independent specialized individuals working together and organizing to perform complex functions to survive together the point that independent survival is no longer an option because the Hivemind knows that the survival of even the main unit cannot be achieved through the sacrifice of the different specialized units that comprise the whole.
It is not radical to divorce queerness bodies, to skin me and wear my exotic pelt, and say you’ve made queerness understood and accepted, even fashionable, when it is fashionable only as an accessory on your body, while it is still a marker of difference written into my body that makes me a target. Remember my body. My body is the one that is punished for being deviant. The thing to remember is that queerness, including gender, is embodied. It is in bodies, it is on bodies, it is all over bodies. Literally it is my body is what it really means to say gender is performative, and people like me have known this before we even knew the words for it because we never quite got gender “right” and society gave us hell for it. Radical should stand for fighting for every body’s right to not be given hell by society, whether it be for gender, sexuality, race, ability, size, and all the rest of the standards of measuring bodies so that the opportunities they get in life are scattered systematically unevenly across a crowd.
I’ve gotten sidetracked, but when I say that I know better than most people that gender is embodied, I mean that while I identify as a woman, and with womanhood, and all the struggles I’ve faced as a woman of color and the communities and contributions I’ve made and will continue to make, I know also that there are aspects of my body that are not aligned with how I relate to them, but if I were to take steps to change my body so it’s more aligned, I would embody more of what society weighs as masculinity. I would inevitably be recognized as a guy, and I don’t want that for all of the reasons I’ve tried to explain. Even as a masculine woman, I try to be conscious of the way my masculinity might be imposing and disempowering others, especially when I’m around feminine people.
When I sit with others and realize that my body language and positioning takes up too much space on the couch, I readjust and make room. In a group conversation when I feel like I might be talking too much or too loudly and dominating, I make space for others to speak and step back. When I’m walking through a narrow passage way with someone and my body language puts me slightly in front and taking up space, I slow down and step aside to give them room. When I’m cuddling with someone, I always check in along the to make sure they are comfortable and okay with the amount of physical contact. Even though in every human relationship I’ve ever had, I’ve been the emotionally more “feminine” one, always on the abused end of abusive relationships, always the one hurting from an uneven power dynamic, I still consciously try to be aware of myself and question whether my masculinity might be enacting power in some way on the other person.
I am so viscerally uncomfortable with the ease of life that comes with being the lubricant of the gears of misogyny within a machine of patriarchy that white men never stop refurbishing and upgrading to new models, some with finer tools, to destroy and dominate, because my communities that have made me who I am have been the ones on whom this violence is enacted. My struggles are written into my body, and my scars identify me with the communities I find and create to fight this.
My body is a queer non-binary woman of color, try to put my body in a box if you dare, my body is a counterspace, encased with struggles, protecting and nurturing within it the empathy that gives me the power to find solidarity with the struggles of so many other marginalized groups and form coalitions agents of resistance. And I don’t want to give up what I have come to embody.
But it still hurts knowing that something is not aligned and not being able to fix it. But what’s a scab that will never quite heal on a body fortified by scars? I can only hope it coagulates every time it splits open, as I know it will time and time again on a body so actively implicated in acts of resistance.