February 14, 2011 § Leave a comment
In my first women and gender studies class, the first assignment was to write a two or three page paper on the question, “what is a woman?” As a first semester freshman, I had no real experience in being challenged to re-think my core beliefs, let alone formally articulate them in an academic paper. The answer seemed at once so obvious and thoroughly impossible. After I spent hours struggling with the exceptions I found to every solution I could come up with, I wrote some overly schmaltzy description that I hoped would include everyone and offend no one. I now look back on that piece with total horror, and cringe when I think about what my professor must have thought when she read my answer to “What is a Woman?”.
As challenging as that paper may have been, and however unsuccessful I may have been at articulating any sort of significant answer, the experience was a powerful schooling in how gray issues of sex and gender are. I walked away from that paper and that class with a much fuller understanding of how complicated issues of gender are, and can thoroughly explain the separation between gender and biological sex and the meaning of “social construction of gender.” As a women and gender studies major, I think in many ways I take for granted the complexities of the issues by being able to brush the grey areas off as somehow being due to the big and blurry ideas or buzzwords without really analyzing the issues.
I am able to ignore the complexities of the questions around sex and gender or ignore the ways they interact with other forms of oppression because of my status as cis-gendered. My identification as cis-gendered (non-transexual) allows me, in many ways, to ignore the realities of the lives of people who don’t associate or maintain a different relationship with the dominant views of sexuality and gender (For more on cis-sexism, visit http://www.alternet.org/reproductivejustice/93826/rethinking_sexism%3A_how_trans_women_challenge_feminism/). I’ve read queer theory, lesbian feminism, been introduced to cis-sexism, and still have a hard time acknowledging the ways I may ignore the voices and realities of transexual peoples. Transgender feminism, in many ways, sits at a unique point in between theory and practice. Gender specific images are everywhere, people interact with their own gendered-self constantly, and we make both implicit and explicit decisions about ourselves and others based on understandings of gender identities. Societal structures in which we make these decisions and create our identities are based on heteronormative cis-gendered assumptions about people.
It’s easy to assume that the societal structures are part of patriarchal norms that I, as a feminist, don’t interact with and can’t do anything about because they’re too big. It becomes easy to ignore the ways in which transphobia or cis-sexism interacts with other forms of oppression. Yet cis-sexism is rampant within the feminist movement. The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival is a feminist music festival that has been going on for over 35 years and was established to create an all-women gathering and community. The festival has a womyn-born-womyn policy, which means that they only allow cis-gendered women to attend. Maintaining such a transphobic policy in a supposedly feminist gathering illustrates the ways in which both transphobia is ignored or allowed, and makes clear the ways in which feminists have as much potential to be oppressors and use hegemonic discourse as any group of people.
Participating in a movement that willingly adopts oppressive policies inherently negates anything “feminist” about the event. The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival ignores the realities of marginalized peoples over a false idea that a shared identity of “womanhood by birth” is above all others and a singular identity is singularly uniting. Thea Lim’s blog post “I believe that I can support you, but also support people who hate you—On the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival” for Bitch Magazine’s website illustrates the problems with associating with people based solely on identity:
Sure, it can be natural to believe, when you feel cornered and alienated by ye olde Dominant Culture on the basis of your identity, that everyone else with your identity, will have reached the same conclusions about the Dominant Culture as you have. But that’s a fantasy – and it’s also essentialising. It does to others what the Dominant Culture does to us: it assumes that you can predict what someone thinks and feels simply on how they look.
Limiting people to a particular identity of “womyn-born-womyn” has allowed feminist movements to ignore or demean people based on an assumed understanding of their reality. Assuming that “woman” has one meaning and means one shared identity allows for policies like the womyn-born-womyn policy and accepts exclusionary hierarchies. I think the next step to make sure I’m not just walking the walk of intersectionality is to find ways to be more aware of the ways I support damaging relationships, like ones among womyn-born-womyn, and acknowledge the ways gender and sexuality interacts with all aspects of my life.
The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival and the surrounding backlash is a perfect example of how feminisms should exist on a horizontal platform, where people can learn, better themselves and become more effective advocates for change based on understanding different and separate realities.