I used to call myself a feminist. I believed that my experience on the margins as a gay person was a source of unity between me and other people similarly marginalized. What I didn’t realize was that not even the margins of our society are equal.
All of us are raised within this system of stratified privilege. All of us are also social beings, socialized within this system to acccept it as ‘the way things are’ and anything that threatens the system is a threat to our whole way of life.
The system had socialized me as a person on the margins to identify with other marginalized people without ever learning much about the unique nature of their struggles, and prancing along ignorant to the many ways my privileges were actuality contributing to strengthening the very system that oppressed me and others whom I cared about.
So I was a feminist because I cared about gender equality issues and raged against sexism whenever I saw it. In my professional experience as a manager, I prided myself on being inclusive of all input, and in some cases especially input from women because of my ‘socialization’ which resulted in a lifelong confirmation bias of ‘feminism.’
The trouble is, one cannot call themselves a feminist without knowing-truly knowing-the experience of women, and one cannot know the experience of women unless one is a woman.
Even among women there is a diverse range of margins that share some commonalities, but are distinct enough that they are not equal. Clearly, the experience of a white sub-urban housewife is not the same as a trans woman of colour, for example. The white woman can’t claim to be black just because she might understand one dimension of the black woman’s experience.
Neither can my experience as an aboriginal cis gay male qualify me to be a feminist by any enlightened definition.
I recognize now that my experience connects me to other individuals in the margins of society who are fighting the same enemy as I am, but they are not fighting the same fight with the same rules. Our enemy is clever.
Why is this realization important? It means that I now actively strive to contribute to the conversation with an awareness of whose voice actually matters to the topic at hand. This is essential. If I happen into a feminist conversation and start waxing about my opinions, then I am taking space and time away from the people who are actually affected by a social structure which prefers white men. In essense, I would be oppressing the women in that conversation by silencing them, and strengthening the social barriers they face in having their voices rightfully heard. Even if all I intended to do was help the feminist cause, what I actually did was interject an irrelevant opinion and convolute an important discussion with unrelated noise.
I have learned not to take up space better filled by others. I don’t call a plumber to fix my TV, and I don’t ask a man anything if I want to learn about feminism. And I don’t call myself a feminist anymore, because that honour goes to those who live it.
The message for my fellow man is simple: we can and should stand with women around the world in the fight against patriarchy, but sometimes, the best thing we can do is recognize that women are the experts when it comes to their lives, and all we need to do is get the hell out of their way.
Randy Edward Nicholas