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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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While my time spent with men was characterized by competition, I noticed a completely different culture among my female friends. Our relationships were built less around doing things together (or against each other) and instead about talking. I remember late nights at parties when Jessi and I would sit in a bedroom and talk while the rest of the party was elsewhere in the house playing Nintendo64, shooting hoops, or playing with fire (pyromania was a hit among my male friends). Our conversations during these parties were about relationships, feelings, and listening. I felt stronger connections with Jessi than my guy friends, probably because we actually took the time to listen to each other.

Certainly, I don't mean to create a false dichotomy here; I had guy friends with whom I talked a lot, and women friends whom I played sports with and compared strength. And when I did engage in sports or competition with girls, I still felt like I was measuring myself not solely as a basketball player or as a roller hockey player — but also as a man. If I couldn’t outperform a girl at basketball, say, then I obviously wasn’t fulfilling my obligation as a man (to be stronger, faster, and more skilled at sports than a woman). But, for the most part, my relationships with guys were different from those with girls.

And of course, especially against male friends, I was often less of a man than others: I was skinnier, slower, clumsier, less athletic, less interested in cars, and generally less something — and I talked about women in a different way than most of my male friends — in that I didn't talk about them hardly at all (except to say I thought someone was cute or I had a crush on someone). I was never lewd or crass about women, like many of my male friends were. I'm not sure why, but I just felt uncomfortable about it.

It wasn't that I wasn't attracted to women. I was and still am. To this day, I can't figure out why I didn't want to talk about women the way I heard other men talking about women. Was it because I was so uncomfortable hearing my dad talk about women in that way? If so, why did that make me so uncomfortable? I wonder sometimes if it was because I saw women as so much more human than men. Women expressed themselves, they talked more, they had feelings, and they demeaned other people less — in general, at least. Men, on the other hand, treat each other like crap. Worse yet, I saw them treat themselves like crap. They never expressed themselves and kept their emotions all inside, except maybe for anger. For example, I've never seen my father cry, not even at my grandmother's funeral. I've only seen him express two emotions, really: anger and happiness — and that happiness, of course, was never too happy, too elated: that would be too gay.

I think that it was this difficulty concerning what it means to be a man, among other factors (growing up in a small town, not seeing any visibly queer folk, growing up strictly religious), that prevented me from coming out until I was 21. Being a man is defined in terms of relationships to other men and women. With men, it's competition (who is a better man); with women, it's a romantic or sexual relationship. Getting over that hurdle at 21 allowed me to come out as bisexual when I was 21, but I wasn't completely comfortable with that term.

I wasn't straight (I was attracted to men), but I wasn't gay (I was attracted to women). But bisexual didn't seem to work either, because I suddenly found myself meeting transgender folk and genderqueer folk who complicated the issue. Once, on a trip to Chicago, I corrected a five-year-old girl on her use of pronouns when referring to a rather attractive person I had just met. “You mean she,” I said. I was quickly corrected that this person preferred he or ze (a gender neutral pronoun). If I was finding people attractive who didn’t conform to our society’s construction of male or female, was bisexual the best word for me? I soon found myself not too comfortable with the gender dichotomy altogether.

And, it turns out, I’m still not comfortable with the limited options of male and female. When I moved to Oregon at the age of 24, I first came into contact with the word queer. I made new friends who used the word to describe their sexuality and politics, in part to be more inclusive of folks who don’t sit within the traditional gender dichotomy. The word queer hadn’t been available to me in Iowa, where it seemed like everyone I met identified as gay, lesbian, straight, bisexual, or transgender. Now, this “new” term resonated with me because it connoted strangeness and confusion, as well as a refusal to sit in a binary.

I also became more familiar with feminist theorists who argue that the root of the oppression of women lies in the sex/gender system, in the actual construction of sex and gender itself. It was upon encountering these theories that I finally felt like I began to understand what it meant to be a man, as well as what it meant to be a woman. I had already understood that gender was socially constructed and not the same as sex. Additionally, I already felt that there was something awfully wrong with the way we constructed manhood, as well as the way men treated and talked about women in general. However, it wasn't until reading the work of feminists such as Catharine MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin, and John Stoltenberg that I felt like I had more insights into our culture's sex/gender system. [2]


[2] I acknowledge that it is problematic to rely on the theories of MacKinnon, Dworkin, and Stoltenberg, as their theories are considered out-dated and have been criticized from various other feminist perspectives. Feminists such as Ann Ferguson (119-120) and Judith Butler (23) have criticized MacKinnon’s theory in particular as overly determinist. Specifically, Butler writes these theories do not leave room for us to theorize about sexuality outside a rigid gender dichotomy. While I find many of these critiques convincing, I also think MacKinnon’s theories, as well as Dworkin’s and Stoltenberg’s, allow us a framework for understanding how we construct and understand manhood in our culture.

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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