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On Being Gender Agnostic

Team T

Academics, raise your hand if you have trouble sitting down to write in the morning?  Now, how many of you find that your procrastination stems from trying to figure out who you are in this world?  I do — and, today is one of those days.  In being a good little solider in NCFDD‘s Faculty Success Program bootcamp, I set aside this time to prepare my keynote speech — “Blogging for (a) change in higher education” — for next week’s Media Pre-Conference, ahead of the American Sociological Association annual meeting.  Instead, I am blogging (for a change) because my head, heart, and spirit are stuck this morning in the question, “who am I?” — at least with regard to gender.

I acknowledge that I am a bit self-absorbed, less because of arrogance or egotism, but more because of fear, self-doubt, and anxiety about my survival and success.  I am incredibly self-aware and reflexive, perhaps to a fault.  I am constantly trying to find meaning in the world, and to make it a better place.  My gender identity, though, is frequently up for internal debate because I lack a clear, static sense of who I am.  Is certainty about one’s gender identity a privilege afforded exclusively to cisgender people — those people who wake each day knowing who they are, and who go to bed each night having had their identity affirmed through every interaction and by every institution they enter throughout the day?  Once again, I canot get right to my work challenging patriarchy, cissexism, heterosexism, and racism out in the world because I’m consumed trying to figure out who I am in the world.  So much for the unlimited supply of cisgender male privilege I was promised when assigned male at birth.

You see, I recall as early as age 5 that my sense of gender does not align with the sex I was assigned at birth.  After openly writing about my gender as a journey, and my developing sense of being non-binary, my mom commented that she doesn’t recall me telling her (in my 5 year old voice) that I should have been born a girl.  I found girls my age to be incredibly interesting in their depth, complexity, and compassion; boys seemed one-dimensional in their desire to connect purely on a detached, physical level through sports.  In hindsight, perhaps being a girl in a boy’s body was the best I could come up with to name what I later realized was a queer sexuality.

In 2003 — the year I turned 18, and transitioned from high school to college — I passed the coming out test with flying colors.  After years of hiding in the closet, I left it and never looked back.  But, upon taking courses in sociology and gender studies, I began to realize my uniqueness was not limited to being a male-assigned-at-birth who is sexually and emotionally attracted to men.  I found my attraction to masculinity extended beyond its expression in cis men, and that my attraction to maleness was not limited to those with a masculine gender expression.  And, I began recognizing that the category of (cis) man was incredibly narrow for all of my queer fabulousness — or that it didn’t fit at all.  So, I went off to graduate school proudly identifying as genderqueer to account for my queer gender identity.

I won’t once again rehash the role the traumatizing chapter of graduate school has played in my gender journey.  Let’s just say mainstream sociology is not a place that welcomes playing with, fucking with, or transitioning gender.  I have grad school to thank for putting me back in the closet, at least in terms of being genderqueer.  I have slowly come out again quite publicly, now as non-binary in large part because I have begun to recover from that trauma.

But, if anything, I feel as if I have been hiding in plain sight.  To the extent that people have internet access and actually give a damn, they can easily find that I am non-binary.  I’ve written about it and I sign my emails with a note that I use they/them gender pronouns.  There are even a few pictures of me in various states of drag.  I have even gotten comfortable enough to share pictures of myself donning various gender expressions to personalize my lectures on gender identity and expression.

You know — but, the joke is on me, because you can easily forget.  I dress like a dude — partly because of comfort and partly because of fear of violence and discrimination.  I don’t want to admit that the slow genocide of Black trans women is perhaps one factor that has held me back from owning trans womanhood.  Though I don’t quite feel comfortable in the category of cisgender man, I present as such on a daily basis, and am rewarded accordingly.  When I put on a suit each day next week at the sociology conference, I’ll easily pass as a cis man, perhaps even white in a certain light, and maybe even straight if I’m not feeling particularly excited or chatty.  I hesitate to fuck with gender at the conference for fear it will be seen as too political (somehow more political than is any other gender expression), for fear it will distract from my message, and for fear of harassment.  But, I feel I remain complicit in misgendering myself by not being non-binary “enough.”  What’s a non-binary unicorn to do?

Fear of others’ reaction aside, I cannot seem to get passed the heavy emphasis on proving my gender identity through my attire and appearance.  My partner has the exclusive pass to see what’s in my pants, but the entire world will take me at my word that I am “biologically” male (with all of the required parts) because of the masculine attire I wear.  But, I’m afraid no one believes I’m genuinely non-binary because I don’t look it.  I don’t don a queer, colorful hairstyle (umm, thanks a lot early onset baldness).  I don’t wear make-up or nail polish (meh, too lazy).  I only seem to wear feminine clothing on special occasions (it’s fun for a night, but seems really impractical otherwise).

My preference for masculine attire has less to do with the gender I wish to express than simply being comfortable in loose-fitting clothes. Unlike other non-binary folks like Jacob Tobia and Alok Vaid-Menon (of Dark Matter Poetry) who frequently share fab pictures of themselves, I generally don’t feel compelled to express my non-binaryness through dress.  For me, it’s about how I feel in my spirit, my mind, my politics, and how I relate to other people.  Frankly, I’m non-binary in all of the ways you can’t readily see on the outside.

Maybe this is also connected to race and body size.  (You have got to read this essay by Ashleigh Shackleford on the complex intersections among gender non-conformity from Blackness and fatness.)  When I Google images of non-binary, I see dozens of images of thin white androgynous people; I don’t really see anyone who looks like me.  And, of what I see, I am drawn to people I assume to be female-assigned-at-birth in masculine or butch attire; my eyes skip over the (thin white) likely male-assigned-at-birth individuals in feminine attire.

The best I can do to make sense of this complexity is a sense of agnosticism about gender.  In my heart of hearts, I’d rather not constrain myself to a particular gender category or gender destiny.  The two main options — woman and man — suck.  I’ve thought, these days, it would almost be easier for me if I just identified as a trans woman; increasingly, Americans know at least something about trans people.  (Like my father, the average person likely would respond, “non-binary?  what the hell is BINARY?)  But, I have realized I am not a trans woman because I am not interested in attempting to authentically perform the rather constraining category of woman.  And, the category of man is pretty shortsighted, too.  There’s always agender, but I can’t wrap my head around not identifying in gendered terms despite not being able to opt out of the gender system.

There is no escaping being gendered and doing gender!

How ridiculous this all seems when I am well aware that gender is a social construction.  Drawing from the Thomas and Thomas theorem, to which many intro sociology students are exposed, if people define gender as real, it is real in its consequences.  There is no physical or biological basis for gender.  Yet, it is a fundamental organizing principle in society; gender shapes and constrains every social interaction, social institution, and every individuals’ sense of self.  Even if I decide I simply don’t believe in gender, I can’t escape its influence in my life.  And, pretending to be “gender-blind” would be just as dangerous as is trying to be “color-blind.”

So, I’m left with three options: 1) identify as a cis man (because I easily read as one), but queer the hell out of the category where possible; 2) identify as non-binary, and define for myself what that entails and what that looks like (if anything); or 3) do nothing, and just awkwardly move from gendered interaction to gendered interaction.  I’ve gotta say though, I’m pretty lazy about getting dressed in the morning.  I suppose I can live up to my declaration to keep playing with gender and to do gender boldly (to boldly go where no queer has gone before?), but, as a gender agnostic, I keep wondering whether there is more to gender than its expression in clothing, hair, and make-up.  Can’t I be a woman today, even if I’m wearing a loose black t-shirt and bagging blue gym shorts?  Can’t I be non-binary without dressing like a skinny white androgynous hipster?  Can’t I be a man, even when I’m rocking a blonde bombshell wig, a sexy red dress, and knee-high boots?

More questions than answers, as usual when I’m reflecting on this gender journey of mine.  But, at least I can get to work now.  Thanks for reading.

I Am (Kinda) Transgender: More On My Gender Journey

Rockstar

I am transgender.

Sorta.

Mostly, but not really.

Since age 5, or even birth — but, really only recently.

Am I making any sense?  If not, it is because I have yet to make sense of my gender identity and expression for myself.  I was 5 years old when I first acknowledged that my own sense of self, interests, and experiences bear little resemblance to what we define as “man” and “masculinity.”  Early on, I knew that I wasn’t like other boys, and later learned that I like other boys.  So, adopting a bisexual, and then gay, sexual identity made sense.  But, with exposure to LGBT and women’s studies in college, I knew my uniqueness transcends whom I find attractive.  So, upon discovering genderqueerness, I adopted that as my own, and began identifying as queer more broadly.  Queer as an identity reflects my attraction to masculinities (no matter the bodies that expresses them) and maleness (no matter the genders it expresses); it also reflects that I do not neatly fit into the category of “man” (nor “woman” for that matter).

Joining the cult of academia, beginning with my graduate studies, proved to be a hard-right turn in my intellectual, professional, and personal development.  There were blips of authenticity, resistance, and fierceness.  I had a tongue ring for a month.  Had both ears (re)pierced for a few months.  Did a little drag.  But, as I attempted to advance professionally, I caved to the pressures to be gender-conforming — both in my appearance and in my scholarship.  As a researcher, I write with unwavering authority.  When I present at academic conferences, I no longer bang on the podium, despite my internal anger about the issues of my research — discrimination, violence, oppression.  Slowly, I have moved away from the full suit and tie look to teach, but that really just means no tie.

As a fat Black/multiracial genderqueer person, the implicit and explicit pressures to sever ties with my own identities, politics, and communities for the sake of professional success proved traumatizing.  My own parents’ hesitation to accept my queer sexuality when I came out at 17 pales in comparison to the misery of graduate school.  I am closer with my parents today than ever in my life — even after recently coming out as non-binary to them.  (Mom: “Hmm, I saw this coming.”  Dad: “Non-binary?  What the hell is binary?!”)  My grad school advisors… not so much, despite their supposed life-long investment in my career.  And, I imagine the more I veer away from my training, the less likely they’ll care what becomes of me.  In their eyes, it was my career to throw away, anyhow.

Late in my first year of college, I stopped taking calls from my parents.  I made clear that they either accepted all of me or none of me.  I was tired of lecturing them in public spaces about why I was taking classes in queer studies and “insisted” on being publicly out.  My Dad eventually drove the 45 minutes to see me.  (I wouldn’t have agreed to see him, but my dorm’s front desk called my room and said, “there is a cop here to see you!”)  Refusing to look him in the eyes, I told him I was on full scholarship and could figure out summers, so I didn’t need them anymore.  I didn’t see his heart break a little every time I said that.  Eventually, he got through to me, we had a nice heart-to-heart over lackluster pizza, and have been close since.

I wish I had been as cavalier with my grad school advisors.  Sure, I pushed back, and eventually took my current position despite their opposition.  But, I only rarely stood up for myself, and regularly caved or at least tried to compromise.  Their voices, with their goals for my career, remain in my brain.  By design, grad school is about professional socialization — that is, a systematic program of teaching new values and ways of viewing and behaving in the world.  And, the program was somewhat successful in re-programming me.  But, not enough to do so completely.  I am like Seven of Nine on Star Trek: Voyager; my scars are reminders that I once was Borg, and occasionally the Borg way of thinking trumps an independent perspective.  (No, I’m not a Trekkie.  Well, you can say I’m a second-generation Trekkie.  I’m fairly fluent, but only talk Star Trek with my father.)  So, even in deciding to write this essay after much back-and-forth, I feel I have a mini fierce queer activist on my left shoulder who is constantly reading the mini R1 minion on my right shoulder for filth.  On my right, I hear, “but you’re a professor!  Professors don’t write personal blog posts like this!  Professors don’t blog!  Professors aren’t trans…”  And, there it is.  The transphobic roots of my academic training.

Then, why write this essay?  Wouldn’t my time be better spent working on a manuscript about transphobia than publicly agonizing over whether I am, indeed, transgender?  I can’t right now.  Aside from the fact that I am exhausted on so many levels after a difficult semester, I can’t sit down to do research on other people yet because I need work.  Yesterday, when I sat down to make a list of research projects I wish to pursue over the next five years, it morphed into journaling about whether I am truly trans.  There is internal work that cries for my attention when I sit down to do research that I tell myself is detached from me as a person.  I need to write this.  I allowed my personal journey and development to be interrupted during my academic training; I internalized (at least partially) the view that my scholarship is divorced from the scholar — the myth of “objectivity.”

But, why publicly?  Why risk the potential consequences of transphobic and queerphobic discrimination in my profession?  I won’t try to convince others of the benefits of baring your soul on the internet.  But, for me, I feel a sense of release when I push back on the social forces that are constraining me, erasing me, killing me.  Why should I privately struggle through the transphobia and cissexism that I have internalized when these are forces that affect us all?  I know that I am not alone.  I write because there may be others out there struggling, too.  And, I know I’ll likely hear more hostility or at least crickets than any sort of appreciation.  And, it’s not about feeling appreciated.  It’s about sharing my journey with others — perhaps even those who will simply read and learn.  To ignore the critics, and haters, and trolls, and bigots, and nay-sayers, I now just write for me — the me of the past who wishes he had stumble upon a professor who spoke so openly about their gender journey.  I write for the future me — the me of 10 years from now who has no regrets, and sees sharing such vulnerability and uncertainty as just what you do.

And, see, now I feel better.  The R1 minion stormed off.  The mini queer activist is doing her victory dance, muttering “why y’all gagging so?  She bring it to you every ball!”

Thank you for tuning into my journey.

Coming Out (Or Not) Is A Selfish Act?

This Friday, October 11th, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans* (LGBT) communities will be celebrating National Coming Out Day.  Beginning in 1988, one year after the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, LGBT people have recognized this day as an important moment to publicly come out or celebrate those who are already out.  The social climate around sexual identity, gender identity and expression, and same-gender relationships has quickly shifted toward tolerance, especially in the last few years.  So, coming out (as LGBT) has become easier, with LGBT and queer youth coming out earlier and earlier in adolescence.

Coming Out (Or Not) As A Selfish Act

Considering the growing acceptance for LGBT people, does it seem silly to stay “in the closet” (i.e., hide one’s sexual and/or gender identities)?  Last week, I attended a talk by LGBT rights activists Judy Shepard; since her son, Matthew, was murdered in 1997 because of his sexual orientation, Judy has done speaking engagements all over the world to promote understanding and acceptance for LGBT people.

I was surprised, though, that she characterized staying in the closet — at least in one’s own family — as selfish.  She argued that, by hiding who one’s “true” self (in this case, one’s LGB sexual identity), you are robbing family members of getting to know you completely.  To be fair, she started her talk by noting some things she would say would not resonate with everyone.  But, she emphasized her argument about selfishness for about ten minutes.  (Other than that, I loved her talk!)

Funny, because as my mother first struggled with my (then) bisexual identity when I came out in 2003, she told me coming out was selfish.  She suggested that it forced her and my father to adjust to this new me.  Since this was fundamentally about sex in her mind, there was no need for me to share such personal details with my parents.   (Now, over a decade later, my parents accepts me as a whole human being, and have apologized for the understandable rough time they had to go through after I came out.)  Earlier this year, a football player (selfishly) argued that coming out in the NFL is selfish because it takes attention away from the entire (otherwise heterosexual) team.

So, a queer person is selfish if they never come out to their families.  And, a queer person is selfish if they come out.  I guess.  Maybe, at the core, being queer is selfish?

Heterosexuals And Cisgender People Are Selfish

I am flipping this “selfish” accusation to highlight the selfishness of heterosexuals and cisgender people who 1) automatically assume every person is heterosexual (i.e., heterocentricism) and cisgender (i.e., ciscentricism), and 2) actively pressure LGBT individuals to become heterosexual/cisgender.

That one has to come out as LGBT in the first place is the product of the assumption that, from birth, everyone is heterosexual and that their gender identity is aligned with their sex-assigned-at birth.  A common parenting strategy is to assume one’s child is heterosexual (and cisgender) until proven otherwise; and, for parents, that includes actively demonizing queer people, communities, and relationships.

When LGBT people decide to come out (or are forced out), our heterosexist and cissexist society does not throw up its hands and say, “well, I tried.”  At the level of microaggressions, we are asked whether we think our sexuality or gender is a “phase,” or are interrogated about the traumatic events that led up to a deviant sexual/gender identity.  We are encouraged to “try a little harder” — maybe you have not found the “right” girl, or should consider joining the military to “toughen up.”

Though veiled as innocent suggestions from a place of concern, we receive comments that suggest we should give being “normal” a second chance.  Of course, this ignores the long internal process one goes through, first wrestling with one’s identity and then weighing the potential costs of coming out.  It ignores that we already have “tried” heterosexuality and/or being cisgender many, many times for many, many years — that is why we have finally decided to come out as LGBT.

More severe manifestations of heterosexist and cissexist selfishness are punishing LGBT people for being different.  The soft approach of re-recruitment did not work.  So, the big guns have to come out.  We are subject to discrimination in schools, the workplace, public accommodations, healthcare, the criminal justice system, the government, religion, etc…  Countless queer people have been verbally, physically, and/or sexually harassed or assaulted.  Countless queer people have been killed because of their sexual and/or gender identity.  Heterosexism and cissexism are not secure enough to co-exist alongside a small minority who are not heterosexual and/or cisgender; so, queer people must be eliminated, erased from the past, present, and future, and forced to assimilate.

Shaming queer people — yes, I am calling this a form of shaming — for coming out, or not coming out, ignores the consequences of these actions.  The true selfishness is demanding that an oppressed minority disclose everything to you when you want it, and hide everything when you don’t want it, while you ignore the oppressive forces that shape and constrain their reality.

Thinking Critically

As a sociologist, I must emphasize that individuals’ actions exist within a larger social context.  In this case, LGBT people’s decision to come out (or not) must be viewed as an individual act within a larger heterosexist and cissexist society.  Our agency or “free will” to act (or not) is shaped by opportunities and obstacles posed by interactions with others, institutions, and larger social systems (e.g., cissexism).

As a Black queer feminist sociologist, I must emphasize that the pressure to come out — whether from LGBT community leaders or heterosexual and cisgender family members — ignores the unique pressures and consequences for doing so among queer people of color, working-class queer people, queer immigrants, disabled queers/queers with disabilities, and queer religious minorities.  For LGBT people who are disadvantaged in other ways, the stakes may be higher for coming out.  For example, LGBT people of color risk being kicked out of their families, and lose larger ties to their racial/ethnic community; the former may be less damaging in the long-run for white LGBT people, and the latter is a non-issue for whites.

So, not only is demanding that queer people (don’t) come out selfish, it is arguably racist, sexist, classist, ableist, and xenophobic because it presumes a common set of experiences for all LGBT people.

Concluding Thoughts

My intention is not to demonize particular cisgender and heterosexual people.  But, I do take issue with shaming queer people for either coming out or not coming out.  Simply existing in this transphobic, biphobic, and homophobic society of ours is a brave act that constantly requires deciding how to navigate survive in this world.  There is no one good path because every decision we make comes with costs and consequences.  Sometimes, for the sake of survival or protecting our livelihood, we cannot afford to be out.  Sometimes, we consider the risks, but decide it is still more beneficial (for ourselves and others) to be out than not.  And, in general, the decision to come out (or not) is not always ours to make.

Without having first-hand knowledge of the reality of being queer (i.e., that is, being queer yourself), it is unfair to question the decisions that queer people make.  If you — talking to cis and hetero people here — feel the need to be critical, set your sights on the systems of oppression that shape and constrain every aspect of the lives of trans*, bi, lesbian, gay, and queer people.  We could use more of that kind of critique, anyhow!

A Gay Guy’s Guide To Feminism – A Brief Introduction

With the start of Women’s, Womyn‘s, and Womanist Herstory Month this past Friday, I have been wondering what more I can do to challenge sexism — including my own.  As I have noted in previous posts, I have an evolving awareness that my own disadvantaged social location as a brown queer man does not make me immune to sexism, nor any other system of oppression.

One important task of my anti-sexist advocacy is to become aware of the ways in which I am privileged as a man.  I know this to be a particular challenge for queer men because of our awareness that we are disadvantaged among men.  So, I was disappointed to find little beyond a few personal reflections from feminist-identified gay men to guide me and other queer men to understand and appropriately fight sexism.  The Guy’s Guide to Feminism seems like a good start, but I find it useful to engage gay men from their unique relationships with sexism, women, and male privilege.

Feminism For Gay Men 101

Though I am just at the beginning of a lifelong journey to understanding sexism and my own male privilege, here are a few lessons I would like to impart to my fellow gay men:

  1. We are men.  We hold male privilegePeriod.
  2. Yes, number 1 is true despite our sexual orientation and despite our gender expression (no matter how feminine, androgynous, or queer).  Though gay masculinity is devalued relative to hegemonic masculinity (i.e., white heterosexual middle-class able-bodied young/middle-age masculinity), it is still privileged over all femininities.
  3. Systems of oppression are linked including — particularly relevant to this discussion — sexism, heterosexism, and cissexism.  As such, our liberation is tied to the liberation of ciswomen and trans* people.
  4. While number 3 is true, we are not immune to sexist attitudes and behaviors.  And, most importantly, being gay does not make us anti-sexist.  Our marginalized status among men may make it easier to understand sexist oppression, but it does does not preclude us from it.  Just like heterosexual cisgender men who engage in anti-sexist activism, we must be active in challenging the prejudice, discrimination, and violence against women, and to keep our male privilege in check (i.e., give it up or use it for good).
  5. Though we generally are not sexually attracted to women, we are just as capable of sexually harassing or assaulting women.  The root of sexual violence is power, not sexual attraction.  I must point out here that too many of us have sexually harassed or assaulted women and naively excused the behavior as innocent because we are gay.  Sexual violence by any perpetrator is wrong.  But, that of gay men has the added element of placing our women friends and allies in the difficult position of questioning whether to feel violated or upset.
  6. Related to number 5, we must stop treating the women in our lives as objects or accessories.  Yes, many heterosexual women are guilty of doing this to us — the gay BFF, every girl’s must have! — which is also wrong.  Friendships that exist because of her gender or your sexual orientation are forms of exotification.
  7. Attraction to male-bodied individuals, men, and masculinity must be stripped of the presumed aversion to female-bodied individuals, women, and femininity.  We need not be repulsed by female bodies just because we are not sexually attracted to (cis)women.  Even when joking, this is no less problematic than (cisgender) heterosexuals who proclaim to be repulsed by people of their same sex.
  8. Certain aspects of gay men’s culture that promote pride and empowerment among us come at the expense of women’s empowerment.  To call a fellow gay man “bitch,” “cunt,” and, more commonly in the drag scene, “fish,” is to use a term that derogates women.  Though they may be positive in intent and meaning, these are not instances of reclaiming pejorative terms used against us: self-identifying as queer is; “servin’ up fish!” isn’t.  Just think how outraged we would be if women decided to adopt “faggot” as a term of endearment among themselves.
  9. Our queer, bisexual, and lesbian sisters are oppressed by heterosexism and sexism.  We, as LGBT and queer people, will not be fully liberated by addressing homophobia and heterosexism alone.
  10. Related to number 9, we must recognize that LBQ women are often subject to our sexist prejudice and behavior, ranging from anti-lesbian jokes to outright exclusion (often disguised as innocently bonding with other gay men or even the product of our exclusive attraction to men).
  11. The way that we devalue femininity among ourselves is another arm of sexism.  The “no femmes” sentiment, aptly called femmephobia, is nothing more than the hatred of femininity, which is associated with women.  Beyond eliminating this silly prejudice in our anti-sexist efforts, we do ourselves the favor of freeing the constraints on how we can behave and express our gender.
  12. We owe it — yes, we owe it — to the ciswomen and trans* people who have fought against the injustices we face to fight against those they face.  Even when kept at the periphery or outright excluded, transpeople have fought for equal rights and status for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. Many lesbian and bisexual women served as caregivers to gay and bisexual men with HIV/AIDS during the 1980s and 1990s, while also fighting along side those who worked for better HIV/AIDS health care.  Feminists of all walks of life have advocated for our protection from prejudice, discrimination, and violence, seeing it as important in (and linked to) activism against sexist discrimination and violence against women.

We owe it to our ciswomen and trans* friends and allies — and ourselves — to be better feminists.

In Defense Of Femininities — All Of Them

Happy Women’s, Womyn’s, Womanist Herstory Month!  Yep, it is March already.  A time the US has set aside for obligatory celebration of girls and women and their contributions to the world.  Sadly, there is a sense of obligation, with the whisperings of “do we still need this?”

Comprehensive Gender Equality

Yes, we do still need these 31 days — barely 10 percent of the entire year — to reflect on girls, women, feminism, sexism and patriarchy, and gender.  By no means have we achieved gender equality.  And, we are overdue for broadening our vision of gender and equality.

Some time ago, I blogged about the narrow definition of “gender equality.”  In this limited, traditional sense, we are referring to the the equal status and treatment of women and men, still recognized by their gender and presumed sex.  This is certainly the dominant vision of mainstream feminism, or was at least in the days of second wave feminism.

There are at least three aspects of gender inequality that remain in this limited view of gender and gender equality.  First, this vision reinforces the treatment of “woman” as a singular status and “women” as a monolithic group.  The unique experiences and needs of women who are also of color, poor, disabled, lesbian, bisexual, queer, older, immigrant, and so on are overlooked.  Second, this focus fails to address the marginalization of transwomen, and transgender and gender non-conforming people in general.  Finally, while aiming to free women from oppression, certain gender identities and expressions — namely femininities — remain stigmatized and invisible.

Gender Diversity

There is a great deal of gender diversity that is too often overlooked within our society that continues to treat sex and gender as binaries: females and males, women and men.

Women, as a group, come from diverse backgrounds: race, ethnicity, social class, sexual identity, nativity, body size and shape, religion, region, and ability.  It is unsurprising, then, that various branches of feminism — or, more accurately, various feminisms — emerged to counter the exclusive focus of mainstream (second wave) feminism to the lives of US-born white middle-class heterosexual cisgender women.  Some of the prominent feminisms in both activism and academia include Black feminism, Womanism, Chicana feminism, multiracial feminism, Third World feminism, lesbian feminism, and working-class feminism.  Today, feminist advocacy and organizations are now more inclusive, but there is still a strong tendency to slip into “single issue” politics.

Related to this diversity among women is the variation within the category of “woman.”  Just as thinking of gender in binary terms, women and men, a singular view of women misses the existence of trans* and gender non-conforming people, particularly transwomen.  Unfortunately, feminist advocacy and organizations have even excluded transwomen in the past, and many wrestle today with deciding how far their inclusivity should extend (e.g., should women’s organizations serve transmen?).

Beyond diversity in terms of gender identity is the recognition of diverse gender expressions.  In reality, there is no universal femininity.  Rather, there are multiple femininities.  Because of the conflation of sex and gender, we tend to assume that femininity = woman; so the reality that femininity can be expressed through any body, regardless of sex and gender identity, is actively resisted and suppressed.  This means we also overlook the hierarchy of femininities, wherein hyperfemininity in female-bodied individuals is rewarded and valued over other expressions of femininity and its expression in other bodies.

Just to make sure the above discussion is clear, I stress that there is a great deal of gender diversity that is too often ignored or erased.  “Woman” does not imply white, US-born, able-bodied, heterosexual (or even sexual), cisgender, feminine, middle-class, Christian, and thin.  There is no singular status or identity of woman.  As a consequence of overlooking this gender diversity, we also miss the inequality that persists among women and among femininities.

In Defense Of Femininities

Despite the many gains that (cis)women have made, and increasing attention to the lives of transwomen, femininity itself remains stigmatized and devalued.  In fact, I would argue that some of the gains made toward gender equality have come at the expense of femininity.  Indeed, early on, some feminists expressed concern that the elevation of women’s status to that of men’s would largely men that women become men.  You can join the old boys club on the condition that you become a boy.

My discipline (sociology) recently tipped over the threshold of gender parity to become a predominantly-female field.  Though the “glass ceiling” has been cracked, if not completely shattered, in some of the field’s top-departments and leadership positions, feminist sociologists continue to struggle to gain legitimacy in mainstream sociology.

Further, we continue to prioritize and reward masculine (or even masculinist) presentations of self.  On two occasions, I witnessed a woman professor scold women students (in front of a mixed-audience) for appearing to lack confidence and aggressiveness: “don’t do that, that’s girly!”  I, too, was discouraged by a (man) professor from being a “shy guy” during an upcoming talk, which, upon comparing notes with another student, realized was the softened version of “man up!”  (I suppose I was assumed too sensitive or critical for the more direct assault on my gendered presentation of self.)

These interpersonal constraints are compounded by those at the institutional level.  In particular, academic institutions continue to evaluate scholars, particularly for tenure, using standards of the days where (white) male scholars had stay-at-home wives to take care of house and home.  Women who become parents face great professional costs, while women who forgo parenthood are rewarded.  Of course, an ironic twist to this aspect of sexism is that fathers receive a slight boost.

Liberating Femininities

As an optimist, I see liberating girls, women, as well as femininity as beneficial to all members of society, no matter their sex, gender identity, and gender expression.  As a critical scholar, I see this liberation as inherently tied to the liberation of all oppressed groups. Sexism is linked to transphobia is linked to heterosexism is linked to classism is linked to racism is linked to xenophobia is linked to ableism is linked to ageism and so on.

For example, two groups of oppressed men — Black men and trans, bisexual, and gay men — stand to benefit from the liberation of femininity.  Just as a hierarchy exists for femininities, one exists for the diverse expressions of masculinity, with that of US-born white middle-class able-bodied heterosexual men as the most valued.  Thus, Black masculinity and queer masculinity are devalued, stereotyped, and simultaneously threatened and treated as a threat.  As a result, many queer and Black men devalue femininity in society and particularly among themselves.  (Some rationalize this by asking, “why would you want to be further stigmatized?”)  True racial and sexual equality cannot exist if these men’s gender expressions remain constrained and policed.

It is time, then, to update our feminist vision of the future.  Feminism cannot be limited to the goal of liberating (a “narrow” category of) women.  We must liberate all women, regardless of their sex assigned at birth, race, age, ethnicity, ability, nativity, religion, body size and shape, and social class.  And, we must liberate all expressions of gender, particularly femininities.  For women will never be truly free in a society that oppresses femininity.