Feminism and Allyship

Part one: The Feminism of the Male-identified Feminist

I love the Everyday Feminism site. It’s an invaluable resource for male-identified feminists (well, for feminists of all genders, really).

I’ve been thinking a lot about feminism lately. I’ve read some really good articles and had some good discussions, and read at least one very very bad article (it uses a radical interpretation of feminism to literally bash anyone who doesn’t fit a particular 2d wave paradigm — it reads like a parody written by a serious anti-feminist, someone to the right of Phyllis Schlafly. I am certain that it has been mined by those people, implicitly if not explicitly).

As a male-identified person who also identifies as a feminist, I’ve gathered a list of specific responsibilities that I have. These are a couple of top points.

1) Don’t mansplain — it’s not my job to tell woman-identified persons how to be feminists, even if I disagree with something they have said. My job is to talk to male-identified persons, and *with* people who are not male-identified. Honest disagreement with some female-identified persons, such as saying how I feel about the horrible article mentioned above, is not mansplaining just because a male-identified person said it. Mansplaining would be running around telling women “you have to quit talking like this!” while claiming that the article is a representation of modern feminism rather than a particularly offensive expression of one person’s lesbian separatism and biphobia. Comments directed at female-identified persons by male-identified persons that start “Feminists should…” are mansplaining.

2) Don’t try to carve out a place in women’s spaces — it is my job to make a space for those who are not male-identified in what remains a Man’s World. So Men’s Studies, which looks at masculinity through a feminist lens, should not take funds or other resources away from Women’s Studies, rather, it should be a model for how to make Women’s Studies into mainstream curricula. It has not made it yet, although it’s starting to make some inroads.

3) Listen more, talk less: only when you have something substantive to add. There’s a principle on Reddit that if you promote your own articles at all, it should be less than 10% of your total contributions. (Disclaimer: yes, I’m one of those people who isn’t afraid to self-promote on Reddit. It’s a great way to reach a broad audience. But I don’t promote every article, or only my own articles.) This is a good principle for any male-identified person who is a feminist – if you have something to say about feminism, it needs to start with the words “Male-identified people should…” and it needs to be because you have a point to get across to those male-identified people. Dudes, there’s literally nothing you can say to a female-identified person about feminism that she doesn’t already know unless she’s just discovering it, and if that’s the case, it should be other female-identified people that teach her the basics.

4) Use language responsibly. Accuracy is important. It’s not an effort to be euphemistic and “politically correct” or a way to deaden the English language — when I say “male-identified” it is not the result of a search-and-replace, but a reflection of authentic thought. It’s the same way that when you say “LGBT” you should be including everyone in the label rather than using it as a synonym for “gay and lesbian” — something that happens all the time in the media and in academia.

Part two: Allyship

The role of the male-identified feminist is similar to the role of the Ally in the assorted queer movements. The model of how people who don’t identify as queer and support equality and rights should act is a good model for how the male-identified feminist should act.

A friend of mine is very upset right now in part because ze is spending a lot of time with self-styled Allies who don’t respect hir pronouns – or the pronouns of others, to the extent of trans*folk leaving a local Alliance organization due to being minimized and derailed. The location ze is at is planning an “Ally Appreciation Week”, but doesn’t do much for the local transgender population.

Calling yourself an Ally doesn’t make you one. Doing things that the community you are supporting sees as useful does. You don’t get a cookie for completing the bare minimum requirements of being a decent human being – although if cookies are being served you’re more than welcome to have some, and hey, it’s a potluck, you can bring a plate of cookies to give away. Maybe some green bean hot dish?

Allies have a definite role in queer circles, just as male-identified feminists have a role in feminism.

But that role is not and should never be center stage.

As a male-identified feminist, and as a trans*ally, I walk with my siblings, with the people who face a bargeload of oppression every day – oppression that I never, ever have to personally deal with because of my privilege. Oppression that no matter how much I think about and work on I do indeed have the luxury of ignoring if I choose to. I could go through the rest of my life without ever thinking about or doing anything about the struggles of female-identified persons or the non-cisgendered (I could, in fact, never use the words “cisgender” or “{gender}-identified”) and face exactly zero external consequences.

Zero. Bupkis. Nada. Diddly-squat.

Does that mean I shouldn’t worry about this? No, because being able to ignore it doesn’t mean ignoring it is the right thing to do, and as a proponent of virtue ethics, a person of good character is a person who does the right thing as consistently as possible – not because it gives them or shows their good character, but because it is a component of that character. Does this mean I deserve no credit for taking the time and effort to do so?

If I’m doing it for the credit, then no. I shouldn’t get any.

The first part of being an Ally to a particular community is recognizing that they would still exist without you. Allies add a lot of things – access to resources, leveraged privilege, a model of behavior for the people in the dominant culture who are still exercising their privilege of obliviousness.

There’s an idea, though, that I’ve run across more than once – that Ally voices are important because of the unfortunate reality that a man is more likely to be listened to than a woman, a cisgender person will be heard when a trans*gender person won’t, that a straight person’s voice has more credibility than a queer person’s.

This may be reality, but buying into it doesn’t fix it.

You fix it by grabbing the wheel and handing it over. You fix it not by taking the lead and expecting to be lauded for it but by opening the space for the voices of the people you are there to support.

There are going to be some people who are Allies to various communities reading this who may be upset, who may feel like I’m not showing proper gratitude for your efforts.

If you are an Ally, and you are feeling this way (“How dare he be so ungrateful! After everything I’ve done to help him, why is he biting me? What a jerk!”), then you need to look inside and ask yourself why you are upset. Because if you would do what you do if no one ever noticed what you did, if you would continue to do it if you were only given the most boring banal tasks, if you were never allowed even on the fringes of the stage, then congratulations: you’re the kind of Ally who will deservedly end up in the spotlight. You’ll probably decline it because you’re not doing it for your benefit other than the way a better society benefits everyone who lives in it.

But if a special week set aside for Ally appreciation is more important to you than a week being set aside for a community you are supporting, if you’re using the wrong pronouns because your comfort in being able to use the wrong ones is more important than the validation of the people asking you to use the right ones, if you are going to quit being a supporter because you’re not receiving sufficient gratitude? You are doing it wrong.

The same thing goes for male-identified feminists. If there is a meeting or a retreat that you are not allowed to attend because you identify as male, too bad. (Now, if you are female-identified and you’re being barred because you’re “not a real womyn”, well, that’s a problem. A big one. That’s also a problem that as a cismale person, I can’t really do much about, because if they won’t listen to you as a female-identified person my support as a male-identified person is actually going to make the problem worse if I try to push my way into the space. That is a place where all I can do is commiserate and offer to help open the spaces I do have access to. And definitely not a time to stroke my beard and say “well, they have a point…” Nope nope nope.) EDIT: I just want to be clear here, that the previous line is NOT sarcasm. I am saying here that they do not have a point. I’d like to thank Francis for pointing out the possible misreading of this line.

If there’s a discussion of feminism going on, as a male-identified person, you need to carefully identify your perspective before you speak (or post). Not saying you have to preface every sentence with “As a male-identified person…”, but you should say only those things that would still make sense if you did preface them with those words.

There’s a piece of language usage I’ve advocated before for Allies. It’s this: use and, not but. Listen to the difference:

“I’m straight, but I support my queer friends.”
“I’m straight and I support my queer friends.”

Hear the distinction? In the first, it’s something unusual. You’re straight, but you’re not like other straight people because you’re a supporter. It also others teh queer.

Here. Check this one out.

“I’m cis, but I support transgender people.”
“I’m cis and I support the rights of my trans* friends.” See how the simple use of “and” trans* turns it into a normative rather than othering trans*folk?

Same thing applies to feminism.

“I’m a man, but I support feminism.”
“I’m a male-identified person and I am a feminist.”

Part three: The 500-ton Stone

There is a role for male-identified people in feminism. Many hands makes light work. There’s a 500-ton stone block sitting on the neck of half of humanity. It’s our job to lift it, and if we all chip in, we can do it, even though it seems impossible from here.

But what we cannot do is all direct how the lifting should be accomplished. The person whose neck it is on is the person who should be signaling the lift, calling the shots, their own voices being heard.

If the issue is patriarchy, even though it’s on all of our toes, the people it weighs the heaviest on should be the people we are listening to.

Kyriarchy is the word for everything, for all the oppressions. It’s on all of our necks. We cannot lift that one off – but if we start by lifting the stones that make it up, it will get lighter and lighter until we (or more likely our children’s children) might have a hope of hoisting it. It’s cismonoheteronormative androcentric dominant culture. And, again, the piece that never seems to get addressed is economic oppression. It’s a BIG piece, maybe the biggest, and it just doesn’t get talked about in this context, possibly because it’s so hard to get a handle on. The problem is obvious, but the solution isn’t.

Here’s one thing, though, if we can move the smaller stones, the stones of monosexism and cisnormativity and heterosexism and xenophobia and patriarchy… then maybe we will find that kyriarchy is weakened enough to be movable from beneath.

We should all be Allies to the communities that we don’t belong to. We should stand beside the stone, not on it, grab where the people trapped underneath show us is the best place to grab, and lift together when they say heave. What we shouldn’t be doing is telling them that we know better than they do what needs to be done. Or telling them that they shouldn’t be complaining about the weight on them because the weight on our shoulders is as great, or greater, than ours. Or that they are making their own lives worse by staying under the stone when they could just fit in with those of us standing around it.

OK dudes, we have a stone to move. I’ve talked long enough. Here, listen to what she has to say:

Why is feminism still important?

About fliponymous

Bisexual activist, thinker, writer, husband and father, non-traditional Graduate student, member BiNet USA Board of Directors. When I grow up I want to be an Existential/Feminist Psychotherapist, a community college instructor, and expand my work for bisexual visibility and equality for everyone in the QUILTBAG. This is my personal blog and the views here do not represent the official position of BiNet USA.
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7 Responses to Feminism and Allyship

  1. I like the substitution of “and” for “but”. I’m guilty of that usage. I never thought about it before but now that you point it out it’s one of those things that seems embarrassingly obvious.

    I’m suddenly seeing the “trans*” syntax in a lot of places; what is the asterisk a placeholder for?

    • fliponymous says:

      The asterisk in “trans*” is sort of a metasyntactic variable: it can stand for transitioning or for transcending, as a lot of trans*folk see themselves as stepping outside of conventional notions of gender altogether while others see it as a transition from one to another.

  2. Pingback: Occasional Link Roundup » Brute Reason

  3. Pingback: Totally Unsolicited Advice For Feminist Guys » Brute Reason

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