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Feminism and the Need to be an Ally

Michael Faris

By Michael Faris
Michael Faris currently identifies as a queer man and resides in Corvallis, Oregon. He earned his master's degree in English, emphasizing in rhetoric and writing, at Oregon State and currently teaches at in the English department there. He is also a poet, a social justice activist at Oregon State, and a former middle school teacher. He grew up on a farm in rural Iowa before moving out to Oregon, and plans on earning his PhD in the future and teaching college.
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was a skinny, lanky kid in elementary school, the sort that was more interested in math and fantasy stories than in football and tag. Sexuality did not yet play a role in how we defined gender on the school bus, so I was not yet maligned as a “faggot” as I sat in one of the first rows of the school bus, but that didn’t mean that gender didn’t play a huge role in how we related to each other.

Those first few rows were reserved for those who didn’t quite “cut it” in the social strata of my small, rural school. As a third grader, I sat there constantly bearing the taunts from behind. Kyle was the worst. A few years older than I, he spent our shared fifteen minutes on the bus kicking my feet from behind, tapping my head, and finding as many faults as he could in my appearance and actions: I wore hand-me-down shirts from my aunts, I had bushy, unkempt hair, and, perhaps worst of all, I wasn’t able to stick up for myself or harass other kids on the bus.

Although I could tolerate the abuse from behind for those fifteen-minute bus rides, the harassment my littlest brother, a kindergartener, received was far more unbearable. If I was skinny, he was emaciated. If I had a mop on my head, his hair was something from a rag doll, with white, wispy locks falling into his eyes. While I took the taunts with anger and rage, he took them with naïveté and appreciated the attention.

The day that sticks out most in my mind was the ride home from school when Kyle and a few other older boys convinced my brother that it would be cool to flip off our mother and tell her “fuck you” when he got off the bus. My brother seemed to take this as wise advice (though I don’t know what he was thinking), but I knew right away that they were attempting to humiliate him. Outraged that he could be so naïve, I found myself kicking him as hard as I could when we got off the bus.

I couldn’t understand my actions at the time, except to say that I was angry that he could be so duped by these boys. Now, I see a whole system of gender and class playing out in that scene. I see the bullies sitting behind me as understanding what it takes to be a man and acting it out: they knew there was a hierarchy to enforce, and the effeminate, the weak, and the meek were at the bottom.

I think I had begun to see this, and begun to realize that I didn’t have what it took to be manly. Except in one case: to show my brother that if he was going to be too naïve to realize what was happening to him, that I would show him, through kicking him in our driveway, that I knew more about what it meant to be strong and male than he did.

Gay and queer men often talk about having a “root” — a time early in their lives when, looking back, they can see they were “destined” to be gay or queer. I prefer to think of roots in a slightly different way. This event was one of the many roots that would begin to define my discomfort with manhood and masculinity.

Now, at 27 and as a queer-identified teacher, writer, and academic living 2000 miles from my parents’ Iowan farm, I am someone that third-grade me wouldn’t recognize himself in. In particular, it is my ambivalence towards identifying as a man that may be hardest for the younger me to identify with.

This ambivalence arises every time I am asked to mark my sex or gender on a form. This ambivalence quickly turns to frustration when I am asked for my "gender" but must mark either "male" or "female." Too often, questionnaires and surveys conflate sex and gender, and even when they don't, they limit us to binaries: male or female, man or woman. This may not seem like that big of a deal. After all, I’m perceived as male-bodied and I identify as a man. However, I am struggling with identifying as a man, largely because of my politics and the influences of feminist scholars whom I’ve read – such as Andrea Dworkin, John Stoltenberg, and Catharine MacKinnon. I’d like to chronicle here my growth from someone who saw the world in strict categories of man and woman into the queer man allied with feminism that I am today.

I believe that as a culture we are often confused about what it means to be a man or to be a woman. In short, we’re generally unsure what gender means. Growing up as a man in our culture, I think, is about struggling with what it means to be a man: how tough to be, how to relate to women, how to bond with other men, how men are supposed to express emotion — and this list is just a start. Gender, it has long been understood, is a social construction, based on the values we have ascribed to sex. It has been these values that we’ve ascribed to manhood that I’ve constantly wrestled with.[1]

It wasn't until I started studying gender as a social system, as a codified set of rules and expectations embedded with domination, that I began to understand what it means to be a man. Or, rather, it wasn't until I started applying what I was learning in classes and in my reading to my own life that I began to understand what it meant to be a man. I owe much of my understanding of myself to feminist scholarship and to gender theory. Gender activist Riki Wilchins writes that "gender is primarily a system of symbols and meanings—and the rules, privileges, and punishments pertaining to their use—for power and sexuality: masculinity and femininity, strength and vulnerability, action and passivity, dominance and weakness" (14, emphasis original). As Wilchins stresses here, gender in our society is enforced through rules and punishments; these rules and punishments not only limit us to rigid definitions of who we can be, but also privilege men (as active, strong, and dominant) over women (as vulnerable, passive, and weak).


[1] I will be, primarily, focusing on gender in this essay, but I would like to give a nod here to the idea that sex, too, is a social construction. For when we define sex, usually as either male or female (and increasingly allowing for intersex), we are usually discussing the presence or absence of a penis. Sex, then, as it is usually defined, is the social value put on the penis. When a child is born, doctors define it as male if the external genitalia is over a certain length and female if it is under a certain length; anything in between is ambiguous or intersex. What this social definition of sex fails to take into account is the genetic makeup of our bodies (which could differ from the phenotypic presentation of our sex), the hormones that course through our bodies (which could differ from the previous two), and, some claim, our brain waves (which too could differ from any of the previous three traits listed before). Although I'm certain I'm a person with a penis, and that I must have had enough testosterone to have gone through puberty, I can't be entirely sure that I am fully male unless I undergo genetic and brain-wave testing. The social focus on the penis in defining sex, though, I think is important in our understanding of gender.

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Cristian said:

I just finished writing an essay about how wonderful this essay is. It's so modern and amazing. This is the best essay I have ever read. Is there more to read by Michael Faris? I would love to read more of his work.

Posted at: March 23, 2009 3:14 PM

Deanna said:

Beautifully written, concise, and enjoyable to read. Thank you very much for this.

Posted at: August 15, 2009 7:08 PM

Richard said:

Really beautiful essay. An amazing message on how it would great if people could just accept others for who not what they are. Spot on about the way traditional masculinity is too often expressed by victimizing the 'other'.

Posted at: June 12, 2011 10:46 AM

john miller said:

I grew up in the south in the 50's and 60's so I know a lot about being picked on and bullied. I knew I was different from everyone else and couldn't understand why I was so disliked, everyone seemed to know but me, I liked more femminine things back then and when I finally opened that closet door when I was 17 it was like a whole new great world opened for me I could look people in the eye, hold my head up and was proud of myself I moved to New york and got in touch with myself and because of my life I had a much more intersesting life than all those small minded bigoted people I left behind I wish I had known someone like you , it would have made growing up a lot easier Just remember hold your head up and be proud of your unique self.

Posted at: February 9, 2012 12:05 PM