When people ask me if I’m a feminist, my gut reaction is to say, “no.” It isn’t because I don’t believe in equality. It’s because, like what some religious beliefs have done to others, feminism damaged me.
I grew up surrounded by second-wave feminism. I was constantly bombarded with messages from “strong feminist women” that if I did not embrace my femininity and join this sisterhood which I was unable to perceive as existing around me, I, and I alone, was the undoing of years of progress made by the women who had gone before me.
The problem was, I never felt as if I were female. Never.
For years—well decades, to be honest—I drove myself into a pit of mental health issues in an attempt to try to find that one thing that would cause an “AHA!” moment; that moment when I would finally feel like one of them and like I belonged.
The more I tried to fake my way through the sisterhood until I found that one thing that would finally cause me to feel like a woman, instead of like one of the guys, the more I began to hate myself.
The more I began to hate myself, the more I would fake this idea of, “I am woman, hear me roar;” which caused a never ending cycle of self-hate.
Even when I began my degree in psychology and started to learn about Gender Dysphoria—then called Gender Identity Disorder—I did everything I could to rationalize away the fact that I’m a trans man because admitting to that would mean admitting to the fact I’m a self-misogynist and simply hate women and everything about femininity.
I’ll admit, even to this day, sometimes I find myself trying to find that one thing that would show me that I am woman; I had just never been exposed to the right flavour of femininity.
Long before my degree in psychology—before I hit puberty in fact—I used to pray that I was born intersex but my parents made me female because it was the easiest thing to do. There had to be some tangible biological fact for the reason I didn’t feel like a girl. And every show I saw with intersex children who grew up to find out they were actually the opposite of what they had been surgically made out to be felt so relatable. The feminist women around me were sympathetic to the intersex child, unlike those other people.
When I had my first period, I attempted suicide. That was, in my mind, the biological proof that I was female and there must be something really wrong with me if I couldn’t accept that.
Some of the messaging I received from the female second-wave feminists around me may seem harmless to others, like, “You’d be so pretty if,” or, “You’d probably feel a lot better if only you embraced your femininity and wore a dress every now and then.”
My tomboyishness—as some people still like to call it instead of accepting I’m a trans man—was only tolerated to a degree by the women around me. It was okay to dress like a boy, as long as there was some pink, every now and then.
Pink. How I hate that colour. My favourite colour has always been blue. I remember my mother buying my sister and I identical dresses. If I was going to wear a dress, I wanted it to be blue. So, I asked for the blue one. My sister was given the blue one—because there was no question that she was a girl—while I was forced to wear the pink one. All in the name of getting me to embrace the sisterhood and my femininity.
That is slightly more terrible than being told, “If only you did…” The other things that were done to me in an attempt to turn me into a girl are far too painful to share. Then there was the whole being beat up at school by groups of “women power” girls because I didn’t fit into their idea of women/sisterhood.
I rarely received these messages from my male peers or the male adults in my life. The rare exceptions were from males for whom I never had respect in the first place. I never paid them any mind. The ones who did matter to me were happy to let me be whomever I was, even if they would still label me as a girl. And, a number of them, when I did reveal that I am a trans man, said, “Well, now it makes sense why there aren’t more women like you.”
Ah, the double-edged sword of, “Why can’t there be more women like you?”
The men never tried to talk me out of doing “boy” things or studying “boy” things. They were my biggest supporters. Second-wave feminists told me it’s because I was embracing the good manly things and these men think femininity is weak. My male peers told me it’s because they were so happy just to have a girl along, even if it was a tomboy.
Who was I to believe? The women who told me they were protecting me against men and in doing so gave me messages that they hated me, or the men who made me feel good about who I was?
When I joined the military—something that I wanted to do since before puberty—and I told them I wanted to be a weapons tech, they tried to talk me out of it. Not because my male recruiter thought it wasn’t a job for a woman, but because they thought it was far below my mental capabilities. Once I explained to them that I like to figure out how things work, and I already knew about vehicles and electrical, they were more than happy to make me a weapons tech, even if they thought it was below my capabilities.
The reason I bring up the differences of the types of treatments I received between men and between second-wave feminists is because the former was almost always positive, while the latter was almost always negative and harmful.
Now that I’m open about being trans, I can finally admit that it is because of second-wave feminists ideas about womanhood and a uterus that caused me to become extremely depressed after my hysterectomy, despite wanting to have one since I got my first period.
Any reminder that I was “biologically” female caused—and continues to cause—so much distress. The distress came from two fronts: 1) I didn’t want to be a girl; and 2) Not wanting to be a girl meant that I was a misogynist. This caused caused even greater depression because I think women are great and think they are equal as men but if 99% of women in my life are telling me that I hate women, logically, I must be wrong and there is something very wrong with me and oh my God, please make this stop! I just want to be healthy and find this magical sisterhood so that I’m not sick in the head, anymore. Please!
And it really boils down to the fact that if women feminists weren’t telling me that I was a traitor to women, they were telling me other things that caused me to feel like utter shit and a failure as a human being, and that they not-so-secretly hated me for being so masculine.
For years, I thought, “If only I tried harder.” This kept me in the closest much longer than I should have stayed.
And today, second-wave feminism is still alive and well. If you are reading this, you are probably aware of the term TERF.
You see, I want to trust feminism. Because I believe in equality, I’d like to be able to use that label. But, just like the child who was abused by their religion, I have a hard time trusting feminism because of the things done to me in the name of that movement. It also makes me afraid to reveal to women who say they are feminists that I’m transgender.
I know it’s changing. I know feminism is trying to be more trans-inclusive. But, it’s hard to trust a movement when you have to accept that second-wave feminism is still a part of it, just like there are different flavours of the same religion, and different flavours of atheists. It’s also hard to trust it when you live in an area still dominated by second-wave feminists. It’s great that the internet is filled with other feminists, but that doesn’t make me feel safe when I have to leave my house.
It is also hard to trust a movement that has self-identifying third-wave feminists who tell me I’m not welcome in the conversation because I identify as “man” and by doing so, I magically acquire this thing called male privileged—Guess what? I don’t. That is a post for another time.
It’s also hard to trust a movement that has very few trans men voices. SDCC had a panel dedicated to trans issues and I had to stop paying attention when they made false claims that trans men don’t experience violence or hate. That too is a post for another time.
Some people wonder, “Well, if you believe in equality, why are you afraid to call yourself a feminist? Don’t you know your denial of the term is harming feminism?”
Well, don’t you know that some of us have been truly harmed by feminism? It takes a lot of time to unlearn decades of messaging that you are less than and are a vile creature because you have dysphoria surrounding your body and the gender role imposed on you by others. It takes time to work through the scars of both the emotional and physical abuse that surrounded those messages.
To this day, I still feel physically threatened if I’m alone in a room of women, waiting for someone to either start hitting me, or start hating on me. The anxiety attacks are unbearable.
But I am trying to trust. I know things are changing and slowly. In the meantime, I’ll just be over here, watching, until the day I can trust that feminist spaces are safe places.