Is Feminism the Right Movement for Nonbinary People?

This is not a post about “do trans women belong in women’s spaces”. Feminism is for women. How you became a woman is nobody’s business.

This is not a post about “do nonbinary people belong in feminism”. That framing begs the question that we are, or should be, asking to be allowed in.

Rather, I’m pondering two complex questions: Should enbies always push for gender-neutral or gender-inclusive language in feminist activities? When feminists who identify as women decide to continue centering women in their group’s language and mission, what alternative services exist for enbies to address issues that have traditionally been the purview of feminist organizing: sexual assault, reproductive rights, discrimination, and the like?

The answers, I believe, are interconnected. Before women can declare that a space is not for us or a movement is not about us, have they considered whether we have anywhere else to go for this kind of support? Are those options equally local, accessible, and effective for the enby in question? What are these women doing to supply feminist resources and theoretical insights to enby-focused organizations?

Before we enbies go #AllLivesMatter on anything gender-specific, have we empathized with women’s silencing by patriarchal society, and appreciated the historical struggle to carve out spaces where women’s voices and experiences had prime importance?

The topic is on my mind because I’ve signed up for a “Women’s Sacred Rage” workshop. It was a fantastic experience last year, the organizers are reliably trans-friendly cis women, and I expect the participants will be supportive of gender diversity. But I’m more definite about my queerness than I was then. Do I need to come out to everybody or will that be derailing? I was socialized as a woman, I’m perceived to be a woman, I participate in a sexist culture, but one source of my rage is that I was forcibly brought up as a girl/woman when I don’t think I was one.

Two articles I read recently frame this dilemma. Rain and Thunder is a local magazine of radical feminist thought and activism. When I call their feminism transgender-exclusive, I mean that as a description, not a slur. Their branch of the movement is concerned about erasure of the specific history and needs of women, particularly lesbians, by the rising popularity of umbrella terms like “queer”. The articles are not available online, so I’m going to quote some passages below from Debbie Cameron’s essay “The Amazing Disappearing ‘Women'”, in Issue #67 (Spring 2017). She is upset that reproductive health organizations have started using gender-neutral language to acknowledge that some people who get pregnant and menstruate don’t identify as women, and that a similar change is taking place in political discourse about hate crimes:

…the term ‘gender-based violence’…is widely used by government bodies and NGOs to refer to what feminists would call ‘violence against women’ and/or ‘male violence’. In this case what prompted the adoption of the inclusive term wasn’t a concern about anti-male bias. Rather, humanitarian organizations in the 1990s felt the need for a more abstract umbrella term to encompass the full range of issues they were working on. The choice of ‘gender-based violence’ did not, initially, change their understanding of the issue. Most early definitions of ‘gender-based violence’ explicitly say that it means ‘violence against women’…

…But to me, at least, it’s unclear why calling violence ‘gender-based’ should do more to highlight power and inequality than calling it ‘violence against women’. The most obvious characteristic of the inclusive term is its vagueness: it says only that some acts or types of violence are ‘based’ on ‘gender’, while leaving the nature of the connection unspecified. (Is it to do with the motive? The perpetrator’s gender? The victim’s gender? Both?) Far from highlighting ‘power inequalities between men and women’, the non-specificity of ‘gender-based violence’ leaves room for an interpretation of it as something any gendered being might do to any other gendered being…

…From a feminist perspective the problem with inclusive terms is not statistical, it’s conceptual. Feminists conceptualize male violence against women as a form of social control which helps to maintain men’s collective position of dominance. It’s not just a question of some individual men using violence to dominate some individual women. All women–including those who will never experience an actual assault–have to live with the fear of being assaulted by men, and with the restrictions that fear imposes on their freedom of movement, action and speech. Violence perpetrated by women against men, however heinous and individually deserving of punishment it may be, does not have the same political function. All men’s lives are not circumscribed by their fear of being attacked by women. This understanding is what motivates the feminist preference for gender-specific terms. Replacing those terms with non-specific, ‘inclusive’ alternatives is not just a superficial change in wording, it’s a rejection of the logic of the feminist analysis…

…When feminist organizations adopt inclusive terms…they aren’t trying to make the problem of structural sexual inequality disappear. But the result is still a loss of analytic and political clarity. Planned Parenthood’s reference to ‘people being criminalized for their pregnancy outcomes’ is a case in point. Like feminist campaigns against male violence, feminist campaigns for reproductive rights are underpinned by a political analysis which sees the legal and religious policing of reproduction as a tool of patriarchal social control–and the point isn’t to control ‘pregnancy outcomes’, it’s to control the behavior of women. (pgs. 12-13)

So much to unpack here. Let me start by problematizing the rhetorical move of speaking for “feminism” as a monolith, akin to evangelicals’ self-descriptive use of “Christianity” or “orthodoxy” to give false universality to one sectarian perspective. To be fair, Cameron is right that male violence against women is supported by and reinforces structural inequality, while the reverse is not true. Men–or should I say, those who are perceived as men–don’t regularly circumscribe their behavior to reduce the risk of date rape or sexual assault, and in situations where they do have to worry about this (e.g. in prisons), they’re generally afraid of other men. And yes, attacks on reproductive rights aim to subordinate “women”, but that’s because conservative men don’t recognize trans and enby identities. Why should we defer to their misgendering of pregnant people?

But is this all there is to feminism? Are all other instances of gendered violence outside its purview? I would argue that “gender-based violence” includes:

*The widespread violence against transgender women, typically by cisgender men, which has its roots in misogyny and toxic patriarchal gender roles. According to the National LGBTQ Task Force’s StopTransMurders campaign: “In 2013, where there were also 12 reported murders of trans women of color, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence programs reported that 72% of hate crimes against LGBTQ people were against trans women, 90% of whom were transgender women of color.”

*Domestic violence in lesbian relationships, when the straight-acting or femme partner exploits her butch girlfriend’s gender-nonconformity to shame her or threaten to “out” her. (Ask me how I know about this.)

*Both mothers and fathers forcing female genital mutilation and male circumcision on children who are incapable of consent.

*Both mothers and fathers coercing children into the wrong gender identity or expression, including “corrective” surgery on intersex infants.

It’s patriarchy, not the existence of trans and nonbinary folks, that starves feminism for resources, so that radical feminists fear competition from issues other than the traditional one of male violence against women. I believe there should be spaces for the specific needs and solidarity of cis women who’ve been oppressed by men, just as there are (or should be) spaces foregrounding people of color, lesbians, trans and gender-nonconforming people, etc., but there should also be ultra-inclusive spaces where everyone affected by patriarchy and gender-based violence can share insights and support each other’s rights. Planned Parenthood, NGOs, and governments should be as inclusive as possible because they serve large populations and there are few alternatives for people who are turned away from these organizations. At the personal level, like workshops and support groups, I don’t have a hard-and-fast rule to discern when it is time to be inclusive versus specific, though I think the presence or absence of alternative resources is key.

For the contrary position to Rain and Thunder, I appreciated Kim Kaletsky’s piece “The Dangerous Exclusivity of Spaces for ‘Women’ Sexual Assault Survivors”, an October 2016 post on the social justice blog The Establishment.

…when author Kelly Oxford encouraged “women” to “tweet their first assaults” in reaction to Trump’s recently released remarks about his right to grab women…I hesitated to join the millions of people responding and sharing their stories.

…[I have]a very particular kind of nonbinary identity, the sort that doesn’t come with body dysphoria. I often pass as a cis woman, whether I want to or not, because I have breasts and don’t wear a chest binder. Sometimes I benefit from that — when I’m able to use women’s restrooms without putting myself in danger, for instance — but mostly it feels like having a sign with false information about me tattooed on my back, one I didn’t ask for and can’t easily remove. At no time does the dissonance between who I know I am and who others tell me I am feel more apparent, however, than when public conversations about gender-based sexual assault arise…

…The more I read others’ stories, the more I wanted to share my own subway story, in solidarity with others. But the stronger my desire to speak up, the more hesitant I became. What would it mean for me to take up space in a conversation explicitly designated for “women”? Would my voice be welcome as a nonbinary voice, or would I have to forfeit that aspect of my identity in order to earn the right to share my experiences?

I chose not to share my story. It’s a decision I’ve made numerous times — when considering submitting essays to magazines dedicated to sexual assault survivors, and when looking into support groups and listening in on social media conversations. I respect that spaces designated for women are for women, and will never deny their importance. Women need that space, and they need to feel safe there. And if my presence as someone who doesn’t wear the “woman” label is going to make anyone feel less comfortable sharing their experiences, then I fully relinquish my right to be there.

But if most spaces for survivors of gender-based sexual violence are for cis women, where does that leave the trans or nonbinary people who may or may not identify with femininity or womanhood, but whose bodies cis men have felt entitled to because they “looked like a woman”? Welcome or not, I often avoid spaces designated for “women” for the sake of my own mental health. Because participating means agreeing you wear the “women” label, entering “women’s” spaces, to me, feels like misgendering myself. And though many “women’s” spaces are unlikely to turn me down even if I do speak up about being nonbinary, I don’t want to subject myself to a space that’s so ambivalently supportive of nonbinary identity that its organizers can’t even commit to using nonbinary-friendly language. I’m already feeling vulnerable whenever I talk about sexual assault and rape culture — I can’t feel liberated from the weight of misogyny if I’m simultaneously dealing with language that invalidates my gender identity.

While I have enormous respect and appreciation for “women-only” spaces, their existence feels counterproductive. Many of them strive to combat or heal the damage from patriarchal norms. But I don’t think it’s possible to deconstruct misogyny or promote bodily autonomy without also deconstructing binary gender and the complicated binary gender divisions and expectations that keep patriarchal culture in place and deny trans and nonbinary folks their own bodily autonomy.

In my workshop later this month, I’ll probably come out, and it’ll probably be fine. People in our ultra-progressive town have responded with a wonderful indifference to my past declarations. The question remains whether I’ll go further, and start some conversations about creating trans- and enby-led forums for survivors of abuse and patriarchy. The burden of organizing those opportunities shouldn’t be entirely on us not-quite-women. I encourage cis-feminist groups to help us build on their work. And by encourage, I mean, “will annoy you until you do what I want.” Sacred Rage power!

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