I’ve been a feminist for as long as I can remember. Even as a small child, I found it an outrage that women and girls should be thought less intelligent, capable, and worthy of independence than men and boys. Specifically, I was outraged when I felt in any way limited by my status as a girl.
In college, when I began identifying as bi and dating women, I identified strongly with the utopianism of seventies U.S. lesbian feminism. Even separatism. The idea of women simply removing themselves from all the patriarchal crap that permeates our culture, isolating themselves, and seeing what new kinds of ways of being, relating, having sex, making art, and laboring could occur was profoundly refreshing to me. It was a way to leave the social behind and begin anew. I idolized the strong, opinionated, sexually liberated, creative women that surrounded me in my hippie college.
Then I discovered that I liked butches. Again and again, my butch lovers would comment on how I looked just like a gay boy from behind. I discovered that I liked looking like a gay boy, from behind, in front, and every other way you could see it, and I did my best to fit the part. I began to identify with the 80s-90s generation of bad girl, butch loving, dildo wearing, kink, porn, and S/M obsessed, imitative of gay male culture sex radical dykes (and I’ve always gotten along well with older queer dykes of that generation). I became less utopian, less sympathetic to the naive belief that isolating women from men could, in itself, result in completely novel feminist ways of being. I believed that power and gender were so intimately structuring as to be inescapable. Luckily, they were also alluring and sexy.
Then, I discovered trans men. Unlike many other feminists, it never even occurred to me that they were “escaping” the oppression of being a woman or the difficulties of being a hypervisible butch in order to buy into the privilege of maleness. It was just so clear to me that the trans men I was meeting had struggled against great odds, had risked, and often lost, jobs, partners, friends, and family, were constantly in the way of having their identities ignored, erased, and ridiculed, and had always hovering over them the dark threat of the devastating social violence that polices those who cross between both categories of binary gender and categories of binary sex. Those who passed as cis males would, of course, experience male privilege, but this seemed like a paltry trade-off for becoming a part of what I saw as one of the most oppressed social categories in existence.
So the feminist and lesbian feminist critiques of trans men always seemed sad and silly to me. In this, I was a bad feminist. But I didn’t care. I thumbed my nose at feminist solemnities in my classroom comments as well as the final paper I wrote for my graduate-level course of Feminist Theory, required for my graduate certificate in Feminist Studies, and my professor, herself a once lesbian-feminist now femme bad-girl dyke, thoroughly enjoyed my interventions. I was a bad feminist, but I didn’t care. I was a queer feminist boi, and it was my job to poke holes in feminist solemnity, to nudge feminists ossified into the seventies rigidities of politics and gender into other political vistas. I was having fun.
And then, I transitioned to male and got a job teaching, among other things, Women’s and Gender Studies. Suddenly, what had been fun and games became dead serious. I was no longer the edgy, marginal queer feminist boi. I was, institutionally, THE representative of Women’s and Gender Studies, charged with teaching introductory courses and defending the field against its detractors. I had to convinced my students that misogyny existed and to teach them both its long history and its nefarious cultural logic. Throughout, I felt like I was doing a kind of penance, paying my dues for the right to leave the category of female altogether.
At the same time, I found myself clashing with my Pops, a hardcore man-hating lesbian-feminist Marxist butch. Some snippets of my conversations with her when I visited during Christmas vacation:
Me: (in a conversation about our differences) “…but you identify as a woman.”
Pops: (combatatively) “Yeah, it’s a gesture of feminist solidarity.”
Pops: (as we pass a group of drunken straight dudes) “You’re leaving me for them.”
Me: “It’s not like that.”
Pops: “Yes it is. It’s a social class. Men are a dominant class.”
Me: “Yeah, but that doesn’t mean I have nothing in common with certain women. I’m not leaving you for them. I mean, look, I picked you to be my Pops.”
Pops: “Yeah, but what I am is anathema to you.”
Me: “What’s that?”
Pops: “A woman.”
Me: “Woman is not anathema to me. I like queer women. I’m not trying to reject them. I just feel like I can relate to them better, more honestly, as a queer man.”
Little spats, no big deal, since I know she loves and supports me in the end, though she may not like or understand what I’m doing. And yet her words get under my skin. For weeks afterward, they echo in my head. I would like to write paragraphs, no, entire pages in response to them. They bug me. Even though I know they shouldn’t. I have answered these arguments before, to others (before I was trans), to enemies once I came out, and to myself. Why then, do they have such power over me? Is it just because she’s my Pops, my father-figure, and I need to convince her, I need her approval more than I need that of your average feminist? And what is wrong with me, anyhow, that I picked a man-hating lesbian-feminist butch to be my Pops? Am I a masochist?
I am sometimes a masochist, but the real answer to these questions hit me yesterday. I won’t go over the details here, but Freud says that the superego – that psychic entity of morality and judgment that lords over the ego, berating it for failing to live up to sometimes impossible ideals – is often a psychic introjection of one’s father. Pops is my cruel feminist superego. Her words have power over me because there is a feminist voice in my head telling me that I don’t love women enough, that I am buying into male privilege, that I am becoming a member of the dominant class, that my embodiment is no longer radical, and, above all, that I should feel guilty about this, that all of this is directly my fault for failing to comprehend the seriousness of women’s oppression, for failing in the elementary “gesture of feminist solidarity” that is sisterhood – the visceral feeling of connection as a woman with other women, for naively liking men too much without holding them accountable for patriarchy, for not caring about the important struggle to open wide the definition of female, for failing to appreciate the labor, the struggle, and the political projects of my feminist forebearers, for being feminism’s wayward son, who blithely abandons the struggle against patriarchy and declares that he wants to be a man and date men, that he feels more comfortable and has more in common with queer men than with queer women. Yes, yes, yes, I am all that, and I do feel guilty for it.
My Pops is my cruel feminist superego. What she says, lightly, combatatively, because she’s had two beers and it’s 1:30am, and she thinks her son is tough enough to take it rings in my head for weeks, becomes my own reproaches to myself. I understand where she’s coming from. I made, within my lifetime, the historical journey from seventies lesbian feminist separatism to 80s-90s butch/femme sex radicalism, to contemporary trans politics, and I know, as she knows, that something has been lost. The contemporary queer and trans movement does not have all the political answers, and it is not a replacement for the political insights of lesbian feminism. We have brushed lesbian feminism off too easily, demonized it too unsympathetically, we are ungrateful children (at least, I am). I have an enormous debt to several generations of lesbian/dyke radicalism that I will never be able to pay, and I do feel guilty about it. That is why I gravitated toward a seventies lesbian-feminist butch Pops. Because I want and need to feel guilty about my abandonment of femaleness and of lesbianism. Because I need to remember that I am an ungrateful, ignorant child who was born yesterday. And because I am trying, through my Pops, to work out a painful, generationally-fraught relationship to lesbian feminist history, a relationship it would be all too easy and comfortable to disavow. I am seeking redemption by convincing her that, though I may be a trans fag, I can still be a good son, I am willing to listen and to learn, I see her as my forebearer, and I want to understand her embodied struggle and her political project. I want to convince her that, though the political project of contemporary queer and trans culture may not have the same vast structural and historical analysis and utopian vision of seventies lesbian feminism, it has a politics nonetheless, one that goes beyond the quintessentially American neoliberal focus on narcissistic self-knowledge and self-realization. I want to convince her that being a trans fag does not mean rejecting feminism, women, and lesbianism as “anathema,” that there are complex generational legacies and continuities just as there are political, conceptual, and cultural breaks.
But, in the end of it all, perhaps rather than exhausting myself by trying to convince both her and I that I am a good feminist, I should simply admit that I am not. I am a bad feminist. Yes, I am a bad feminist. I am a trans fag, which is the worst thing a feminist can be. I am abandoning what many see as foundational aspects of feminist experience and struggle. I don’t love women enough. I love men too much. I want to be a man. Most of all, I believe in the importance of combating ciscentrism, transphobia, and homophobia. I believe in the gender politics of being a man who is constantly debasing his masculinity by getting fucked by other men. I believe in this all enough to allow the embodied struggle against misogyny and lesbian-phobia to take a back seat. I am a bad feminist, but there is a certain pleasure, it’s true, in failing to be a good feminist: in failing to live up to standards of an impossible purity, to an uncompromising political vision, to an ossified faith in feminism’s political origins in the seventies, to a certain blindness to the alternative feminist futures carved out in spaces that look nothing like lesbian separatist communes. There is a pleasure in betrayal, failure, naughtiness, and trouble-making. I am feminism’s ungrateful, wayward son, and this is who I will remain.