I have identified as a feminist for most of my life. The earliest proof I have is a diary entry from when I was 13, but it’s entirely possible that I thought of myself in those terms long before that. I did not have a theoretical concept of feminism back then. It was just a way of identifying with the stories of women’s liberation that I knew, and of expressing a commitment to the idea that the story of women’s liberation is not over yet. And, for full disclosure, there might have been a tiny bit of a sense of female superiority in the mix, because I was 13 and I thought that boys were stupid.
I have written before about the fact that now, as an adult who is exposed to much more actual feminism in the form of activists rambling on Twitter, demonstrations taking place in my city (and with them the the fights beforehand and afterwards), some actual theory, journalism, and so on, I struggle with feminism quite a bit.
I think it comes down to two things that are in tension with one another: On the one hand, I expect a worthwhile form of feminism to create room for more experiences, and to challenge common sense where necessary. On the other hand, I expect a worthwhile feminism to provide an analysis of gender that allows me (everybody, really) to make sense of my own experiences in life.
For most of my life, I identified as bisexual. My concept of bisexuality was what would now be called “pansexuality”. I believed that only the person counted, and there were phases in my life when I was quite vocal about it. I was rather arrogant about hetero- and homosexuality alike. Only loving the same/ the opposite sex? Why? How narrow-minded!
It is actually a major ironic twist in my life that I have now come to admit that what I thought of as my attraction to men was indeed more of an attraction to fulfilling a certain role – and made me very unhappy. So am I becoming one of these narrow-minded “monosexuals” that I used to arrogantly pity for only considering 50% of the world’s population as potential partners? Ironically, it seems like it.
While I was thinking of myself in terms of bisexuality, mainstream non-academic feminism (as in: stuff that was fashionable on facebook) was something I could hold on to. It has many very individualistic elements, and that fit my idea of “It’s all about the person, stupid!” pretty nicely. And by being only into humans and not into sexes/genders, I could consider myself a true feminist. Wasn’t I able to really live the message of feminism, i.e. the message that all humans are equal, regardless of their gender?
Unfortunately, throwing the bisexuality narrative overboard also meant losing the ability to use feminist analyses as a tool for understanding my own experiences. Third-wave feminism has a tendency to demand maximum specificity: You can like what you want, but please be very specific regarding the question whether you are into a certain gender presentation or a certain body type (which, pace what feels like half of the internet, I will keep calling a certain sex). Now, interestingly enough, no one ever makes the effort to explain how the f*ck I am supposed to know. I have not been with extremely many people, and with those few (cis) people, sex and gender have always been a package deal. In its worst forms, feminism not only demands that people distinguish via introspection between our attraction to genders and sexes, but also reserves terms like “lesbian” for being attracted to gender presentation. Many lesbians’ dislike for penises is then no longer seen as a pretty central feature of being a lesbian, but rather a common kind of fetish. And don’t you dare expecting others to know that you’re not into that kind of body just from saying the word “lesbian”! For the sake of maximum specificity, these issues must remain distinct.
The demand for maximum specificty reminds me in a painful way of the arrogant way in which I used to treat bisexuality as the only comprehensible option: Shouldn’t the people who make it about something other than just the person ask themselves why, and look at it as some kind of weird body type fetish? My bias is probably enourmous for obvious reasons, but contrary to the claim that bisexuality is constantly erased, I perceive it the other way round: the more influential people who will shout “If you are a lesbian, then you should love a woman’s penis” into the internet often are bisexuals, and it angers me greatly that they do not seem to consider the option that this only seems so highly logical to them because to them, it’s only about the person anyway. But it’s not like that for everybody.
Where this leaves me I do not know. It seems to me that the boundaries of words like “lesbians” are pushed to make room for more people’s experiences, challenging common sense in the process because it is thought to be necessary. This satisfies my first desideratum for a worthwhile feminism. But to the extent to which this happens, I feel that I lose the ground beneath my feet. Sexual orientation issues take up a lot of energy already, and having the meaning of common sense terms questioned along the way really doesn’t help me make sense of anything. I suspect that I am not the only one who feels this way. But given that I have once been one of the more annoying proponents of the kind of view that does this, I am probably getting what I deserve.