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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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MacKinnon and Dworkin have both noted that the way society constructs, discusses, and engages in heterosexual sex is in terms of violence and domination. Dworkin argues that the way we talk about and view heterosexual sex informs the way we relate to each other and the way power structures exist. In her book Intercourse, she writes that we often discuss sexual penetration in terms of violation to the point that “Violation is a synonym for intercourse” (122). For Dworkin, the way men talk in literature, philosophy, law, etc. draws on the metaphor of heterosexual sex, but the way we talk about sex (violation and penetration), continues a system of domination of men over women. It is not just that penetration occurs, but that this penetration is talked about in terms of violation: e.g., conquest, laid, dominated, invaded, fucked — and that this violation is normalized.

MacKinnon too notes the violence that is used when it comes to heterosexual sex. She believes that heterosexuality is defined by “the eroticization of dominance and submission” (178). Gay sex, too, often enacts this dominance and submission. Even if we aren’t talking about sex, it seems that men are defined by domination and women by submission. The countless times I was called “pussy,” “pansy,” and “girl” in the hallways at school began to have a new meaning to me after I read Dworkin’s and MacKinnon’s work. If I wasn’t aggressive enough, I wasn’t fully a man. I had to a be a “girl.”

“Why must human experience by ‘gendered’ at all?” Stoltenberg asks (304). This is a question that I’ve spent quite a bit of time considering. It seems that in a truly just society, we wouldn’t need gender. We would be polyandrogynous beings, each one of us a mixture of feminine and masculine traits without being labeled as gendered. If society were this way, it seems to me, then we wouldn’t have to rely on a system of gendered domination. Youth wouldn’t feel less than others because they didn’t live up to a model of manhood. I wouldn’t have been humiliated by the bullying of my brother on the bus. People attracted to the same sex would be safer because there would be no expectations that they be attracted to certain people.

What this would ultimately mean, I believe, is respecting one’s own and others’ dignity. Stoltenberg writes that to be a man means to be loyal to manhood rather than to oneself. To pass the test of manhood one has to ignore the dignity of others and of oneself, to reduce others to “Its” instead of full humans, or “Yous” (1, 330). When we men bully or demean others, we reduce them to objects, to “Its.” This act of demeaning seems completely wrapped up in the construction of manhood. It seems that a genderless society would be the best answer, and I admire some people who have decided to use gender-neutral pronouns for their efforts toward this change.

But here enters my ambivalence: I’ve considered my discomfort at continuing to identify as a man, to use the pronouns “he” and “him,” to continue existing in a binary gender system with which I disagree. I have considered instead identifying as genderqueer and asking others to use the pronouns “ze” and “hir” when referring to me. But I have to consider pragmatism. I am visibly male, and unless I take moves to alter my physical makeup, I will probably always be coded by others as male, and thus ascribed as a “man” by strangers. To deny that I have been constructed as a man, I believe, would be to also deny all the privileges that I get (unearned) for being coded as a man in society. This includes those privileges that we give men unconsciously: taking their ideas more seriously, listening with more respect, not interrupting their words as often as we do women’s, to start a brief list.

But there is another reason I don’t feel comfortable starting to identify as genderqueer: as an educator, I feel that if I am perceived as too radical (and granted, some readers will already feel that I am), I might lose identification with students. That is, if I identify as genderqueer, I may alienate students who have more traditional values. Losing this identification with younger men is especially dangerous, I feel, for male students who often need a model of manhood that is as non-dominating as possible. I now teach college, but when I taught middle school, I think the model of manhood that I presented (one that stuck up for women and queer folk, one that showed interest in traditionally feminine activities, one that wasn’t deep-voiced or physically threatening) served as a model for the quieter, weaker, and meeker (and possibly queer) boys that one could be a man who was strong in non-traditional ways.

So what does it mean to me to be a queer man? We often speak of allies in the queer community, generally in terms of heterosexual folk who have chosen to work and fight as allies to queer folk. But I’d like to reposition this word, and stress the importance of queer men as allies to other subjects of domination: women, trans folk, other queer men, persons of color, differently-abled folk, economically disadvantaged people.

The ways we can go about this are various, but I believe that three key approaches are important. First, we must give up our unearned privilege when we can. For example, male voices are given more reverence than female voices in our society, and it is important to let others speak and call attention to situations when male voices are valued more highly. Second, we must also use this unearned privilege to help others when we can. This can involve situations of speaking truth to power when those in power won’t listen to the lived experiences of oppressed people. Finally, if we are ever to achieve a more equal, just society, we must break the male bond, by which I mean when men bond over the domination of others (e.g., talking about women as if they are solely objects). It is vital to break my bond with those men and instead stand up as an ally for other oppressed folks.

Being a queer man is already an act of breaking the male bond, but I don’t believe that coming out is enough to fight the systems of domination that we have been born into. It is a start, for sure. I’ve developed close friendships over the last few years with wonderful women, trans folk, and queer men because I have chosen to fight sexism and other systems of oppression. I’ve found that we can trust each other to stand up for each other against acts of domination. When I consider these trustful relationships, I can’t imagine a life in which I had chosen to attempt to be a ‘real man,” which I believe would be a life of constantly reducing others to “Its” and maiming their dignity — and through that, destroying my own.

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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