Sometimes I imagine taking a cut of skin and slowly peeling it off, sliver by sliver until there is nothing but red. I wonder how long it would take to stop feeling; how much focus it would require to keep peeling. Then my mutilated self would walk outside into the rain and feel all over again. The water would stab and sting my raw, exposed body and wash away the ache of living as an other.
Is that what dysphoria is like? Sometimes. Sometimes there is no feeling at all, only the faint phantom feeling of numbness.
The fluidity of gender is complicated; it is messy and it is beautiful. If I've learned anything, it's that I cannot say with any real sense of authenticity or certainty that I know who or what I am--not fully. I lived as a cis heterosexual man for the first 22 years of my life. I then lived as a cis homosexual man for another decade. Today I am something much closer to myself.
I identify as non-binary because at this point in my life--as I deconstruct obstructions that have confined my existence thus far--I understand that there is a deeper truth found within that I have yet to unearth.
As a child, I recognized female empowerment as personal. My younger self found affinity in songs like No Doubt's "Just a Girl" and Jewel's "I'm Sensitive." I felt solidarity, but I had to hide it. My mother already expressed her disfavor that all my friends were girls; certainly, she wouldn't approve of the fact that I felt more like them than what my body said I was. I was not a girl, so how could I express or even attempt to put into words my innate knowledge that these pop messages fit me?
Now that I have a deeper understanding of who I am, now that I know I am not male, the rejection of my humanity is visible all around me. Just as my mother did, there are those who insist that because of my body, I cannot be who I am.
And sometimes, those doing the insisting, the hurting, are self-described feminists.
Do you know what it feels like to be othered? To suddenly lose all your humanity and become something else, something other? I will tell you. It hurts, but hurt does not suffice. It is painful, but pain is not strong enough a word. There are no words to describe it.
One Friday night earlier this fall, my partner and I were having drinks at a dark, dank dive bar in center city Philadelphia with his brother's fiancée (let's call her Kelly) and her best friend. I was ambivalent going into the planned happy hour--something we do together every few months--in part because it would be the first time I've seen them since I've been living as non-binary. Happy hour quickly turned into many hours.
Several pitchers in, I returned from the restroom to find that pronouns were being discussed. My partner had just finished telling Kelly that because I am non-binary, I use gender-neutral pronouns, they/them. As I sat down, Kelly decided to bombard me with questions about, and alternatives to, how I identify. At one point she, in all seriousness, suggested using "it" as a pronoun instead.
"No," I stated sternly.
"I'm only asking to understand," she replied.
"I am not an it!"
Maybe that is why my body shook and my breath lost its rhythm; my eyes flooded, then evaporated, and my skin lost all its moisture. Maybe that is why I had to use one hand to help lift the other hand, and why I fumbled erratically, wrapping my ankles around the legs of the chair so as not to fall off and into the void below--for the entire room fell away. The floor disappeared and there was nothing but an eternal darkness.
Where does feminism fit into my experience? Specifically, where do I fit into feminism? I know that for feminism to be successful and beneficial, it must be intersectional--yet even in alleged intersectional feminism, there is exclusion, erasure, or outright dismissal of people like myself.
I told Kelly that I was not her encyclopedia, that her using me to gain understanding was a problem. She continued to question my humanity, even after I became visibly and audibly upset, while her friend said nothing and permitted the abuse to continue.
I muttered, "This isn't about you," and Kelly began crying. In a matter of seconds, she centered herself as the victim.
As I sat between the two women, I clung to my chair, grasping for the support an inanimate object is incapable of providing. Then I rose and walked out into the night, sobbing, panting, shaking my way home.
This is merely one example of what happens when feminists reject intersectionality. That rejection is violence, and people like myself are the recipients of that violence.
When feminists speak about feminism and address their audience by saying he or she as a means to be inclusive, I am excluded. When they speak to or about other feminists and use only female-specific pronouns and descriptors, I am excluded. When women call for equity and inclusion but exclude those who reject the gender binary, we feel the same oppression these women are purportedly contesting. If intersectional feminism does not include trans people of all stripes, then it is not intersectional.
Feminism was a direct response to oppression, and oppression lives within us all. From this angle, I am the persecutor and the persecutee, living in harmonious chaos. I am both powerful and powerless, privileged and disadvantaged. The skin I'm in protects as well as torments. The conflict in me is the same conflict in us all, and where there is conflict, there is an opportunity for growth.
There are those who want to remove gender from the equation, but the removal of gender is not an answer; it is a resolution that cannot resolve. There are those who believe inclusion of people like myself--who are discriminated against because of their gender--is somehow antithetical to the values and ethics of feminism. This notion is ludicrous. Instead of recognizing gender and all its splendid complexities, instead of embracing those differences, they want to remove them altogether. What is that?
I'm not speaking about removing gender from consumerism, for that is something else entirely. What I am speaking about is the violent idea that if gender were not in the equation, there would be vast improvement. In a speech delivered at the Malcom X Weekend at Harvard University in 1982, Audre Lorde said:
"You do not have to be me in order for us to fight alongside each other. I do not have to be you to recognize that our wars are the same. What we must do is commit ourselves to some future that can include each other and to work toward that future with the particular strengths of our individual identities. And in order to do this, we must allow each other our differences at the same time as we recognize our sameness. In order to be whole, we must recognize the despair oppression plants within each of us--that thin persistent voice that says our efforts are useless, it will never change, so why bother, accept it. And we must fight that inserted piece of self-destruction . . . "
My differences are what make me unique, but within those differences are universal truths everybody shares. Audre Lorde often spoke and wrote about the complexities of gender, sexuality, and race, and while I will never know what it is like to be a cis lesbian woman of color, there is wisdom to gain from not knowing. The not-knowing is where a deeper truth resides.
Listening and absorbing the shared words of another--of someone we can never be, for we can only be ourselves--presents an opportunity to learn. Our differences are not the root cause of the problems we face in the world. The inability and obstinate refusal to acknowledge the humanity within those differences is what divides us. When we fail to acknowledge that humanity, we fail to recognize pain as pain, and when pain is not real, we can hurt with a clear conscience.
When trans exclusionary radical feminists are defended by so-called allies of the trans community, when they say we can agree to disagree on some things, they are treating me like a thing, something less-than, something other. This is violence. When cis women debate and discuss the merits of trans inclusion, they are talking about people as if those people are not real.
But I am real. I am human. And my existence will never be up for debate.
Other recent stories include:
We Don't Value Trans Voices--Even On Trans Issues