When Dysphoria is Misidentified as Feminism
Becoming more connected with the asexual world has brought me into close contact with transgender and enby assigned female at birth (AFAB) narratives. The asexual community I’ve found online is dominated by women generally and a great many AFAB people regardless of their gender; it’s new territory. What’s particularly interesting is the use of internalised misogyny to explain dysphoria away, and it makes sense: women are framed as unstable, weak, unreliable, incompetent, and slaves to our bodies. There’s a lot of hate out there; it’s easy to internalise it. But it got me thinking, doesn’t this work regardless of assigned gender at birth? Surely negative messages matter. If I were to apply this narrative to myself, how would my response be interpreted?
I should be clear that I don’t believe any narrative is absolute. Quite the opposite: they are gateways into a story. They don’t hold up under scrutiny, but they provide us with a baseline for discussion. Our experiences fundamentally don’t conform to the narratives entirely. A narrative is a construct to be used when needed, discarded when it gets in the way — which is precisely why I can take this common narrative, place myself inside it, and see what it does.
“You are a sort of closet feminist,” a professor told me when I mentioned I was taking a women’s studies class the following term. I remember it being uncomfortable. Feminism has a lot of mixed connotations, for a start, but I was particularly unhappy about being considered closeted. I was pretty sure I wasn’t a closet anything — something another friend recently said to me as a joke. I liked being a revolutionary; a subversive. Still do.
The term ‘closet’ is more poignant now, of course. That I was uncomfortable with the idea of being closeted even more so. In my point of view, I had an interest to pursue, and a professor that I liked was offering a class on the subject. It’s an easy choice to make, right?
I understand now that wasn’t all of it. That really, I was entering an unofficial gendered space and able to take part. I wasn’t aware of that a the time but those lessons were a place of comfort for a few months. The reading resonant, the people motivated by social justice and inequity, same as I was. Not just as I was, but in the same way as I was and from the same perspective. I belonged.
"MY UNDERSTANDING OF WHAT I WAS IS VIEWED THROUGH THE LENS OF THE NOW; I CAN’T REALLY KNOW WHAT I FELT IN THE MOMENT."
It’s difficult to say any of this with absolute certainty. My understanding of what I was is viewed through the lens of the now; I can’t really know what I felt in the moment. I can say that my differences in that room full of women only became important through my own observation. My friends (again, mostly female) would joke that I was going to female class. It was the unofficial name by the end of the semester.
I am happy to call myself a feminist these days, and through the lens of the now I can see that my participation in that class was more than pursuing an interest. Maybe then-me didn’t need more than a common interest at the time, but it’s clear that it filled something in me to be in that feminine space learning from a feminine perspective.
What I can draw from experiences like this one is that I craved female time. I saw the plight of my own and identified with the messages aimed at women, but people interpreted my responses as sensitive. I wasn’t. I was what I am now, but instead of seeing an anarchist feminist social justice warrior, they saw a compassionate do-gooder. An ally, I suppose.
What also interests me is how people attributed my sense of injustice and responses to it as not mine. I was raised well. I had good role models. I had a strong mother. They’re not wrong but my response to inequity is my own. Plenty of folks have good role models, a strong mother and all the right messages but still end up lacking empathy or insight into issues facing women.
It’s a post for another time but I can’t help but notice the contrast between my discomfort with being seen as an ally in this context but finding myself quite comfortably ally-zoned in queer spaces. Perhaps my own internalised phobia is to blame, but gender in particular too often becomes an excuse to hijack an exchange and I don’t want to spend my life educating whatever curious passerby I chance upon. I guess we can’t fight on all fronts.
"IT’S PRETTY OBVIOUS THAT MY RESONANCE WITH WOMEN’S ISSUES STEMS FROM MY IDENTITY, EVEN IF I WAS UNAWARE AT THE TIME."
It’s pretty obvious that my resonance with women’s issues stems from my identity, even if I was unaware at the time. It’s easy at that point to turn this into a tragic story of exclusion, but that would be false. I was very much included. My female friends, teachers, colleagues and students created an atmosphere of inclusion. I never felt shoved out of spaces I wished to enter.
In this way, I find myself resonating with the AFAB narratives better than AMAB (assigned male) ones. I experienced the othering, but it was a gentle thing. A nudge rather than a shove. I also accepted that othering because I was unaware of my identity. Or at least, the framework I adopted then is not the one I adopt now. I worked with what made sense at the time, and at the time tomgirl worked — another AFAB narrative that works with my story.
Like all narratives, it falls short. We are unique, complex creatures with our own twists and turns. No universal story will ever fit. But what’s particularly interesting about this exercise is it exposes how my attempts to ease dysphoria (as I’ve come to recognise it in the now) was seen: a closet feminist. An ally. In the end, I recognised I was too far woman of centre to be a tomgirl, but I can own that past. Perhaps the reason I struggle to find common ground with others is I was looking in the wrong place. It’s comforting to find another way in.