Way back in 1837, a French socialist called Charles Fourier coined a little term called ‘feminism’ to describe the radical idea that women should have rights. “The extension of women’s rights is a basic principle of all social progress”, he said, being a pretty upstart guy for the 19th century. Nowadays that kettle of fish is as commonly accepted as heliocentrism (although you will find people who disagree, mainly on Twitter) – and it’s because of its popularity that fissures have appeared. The fact is that Fourier was describing a very specific plight, and with the advent of the digital age we know the struggle he saw isn’t universal. It’s a bit broader than that. So what happens to feminism – an ideology that, at its core, concerns women – when you’re not even talking about women?
I should clarify that I’m not removing women from feminism altogether, because then it would cease meaning anything. What I am asking more precisely is: if you’re not a woman, but do identify with the unique pressures and struggles that women face, where do you fit in feminism?
Good question. Tough answer.
I’m non-binary, which means I don’t identify as male or female. Before I was born my parents wanted to find out my sex, but at the exact moment the obstetrician waved the ultrasound wand in my direction I crossed my legs in the womb and turned away from the monitor. I like to think this was my first “screw you” to the inherent gendering of society. Of course, it didn’t quite work out the way my foetus-self wanted: I was born, I was called a girl, and so it goes. To skip a short and highly-convoluted life story, I realised I was non-binary at 15 and actively began going by they/them pronouns and my current name at 16. It was at this point that I ran into a rather prominent and glaring issue among many, many others – and it involved my favourite shirt …
“I hope you like feminist rants”, it proclaims in bold lettering across my chest, “because that’s kind of my thing”.
Was it true? Hell yeah, I love a good feminist rant. Did it raise a whole lot of questions about how I now fit into the feminist paradigm with an identity that, strictly speaking, isn’t at its focus? Oh boy, did it.
I relate to the experiences of some women because other people perceive me as a woman, which is to say that they see my physical features and a tiny Venus symbol pops into their heads. Because of this, I am at risk of things women are often recipients of: misogyny, assault, and targeted discrimination. This is too big a part of my life to ignore; feminism is the only way to combat it. I don’t plan on having gender reassignment surgery or taking hormone treatments, so for the rest of my life I’ll be read as a woman. The thing is, if I corrected every person who called me a woman or used the wrong pronouns when referring to me, I wouldn’t have the time or energy to actually exist as the person I would be explaining to them I was. To some, this sounds like defeat; to me, it’s integrity. Accordingly, this is how I frame myself when I approach any space that describes itself as feminist.
In these spaces I’m aware that when someone talks about “women’s problems”, they’re simultaneously talking and not talking about me. I’m floating in a liminal space: too trans to identify completely with women, but too woman-aligned to seek support anywhere else. That’s not to say feminist groups are without inclusivity; ANU has surprised me with its efforts to make women’s spaces less cisnormative in recent years. Every autonomous event Facebook notifies me of comes with the caveat that it’s for women* – emphasis on the asterix – meaning for anyone who falls under the umbrella of women-related concerns. This kind of thoughtfulness is still in its infancy, of course, and I’ve found that whenever I do enter feminist spaces on campus I’m one of the very few gender diverse, non-cisgender people there. What’s truly revealing, however, is the fact that people don’t blink when I include my pronouns with my name when introducing myself. Slowly but surely details like these are being picked up on, dusted off and considered with as much gravitas as the myriad of other struggles feminists confront – and that’s what makes all the difference.
Before university, I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to combine my non-binary and feminist identities. Three years later and I know it’s not a matter of forcing these two aspects together, but of letting them co-exist as a yet-understood paradox. Good old Walt Whitman put it best: “I contradict myself; I am large; I contain multitudes.”