How To Be A Genderqueer Feminist
Originally Posted on October 31, 2015
Feminism's focus on women can be alienating to queer people and anyone questioning the gender binary. But it doesn’t have to be.
I've never felt quite like a woman, but I've never wanted to be a man, either. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be something in between. To quote Ruby Rose: I called myself a girl, but only because my options were limited. I always assumed that everyone felt that way.
I discovered my mistake one day in junior school, when a few of the girls in my class were chatting about what boys they fancied. I wasn’t often invited to participate in these sorts of secret female chats. Even back then, there was something odd about me, a strangeness that was partly about identity but also about the fact that I wore shapeless black smocks, rarely brushed my hair, and tended to jump when anyone spoke to me.
I couldn’t think of anything to say that would be both interesting and true. So I mentioned that I often felt like I was a gay boy in a girl’s body. Just like everyone else, right?
I could tell from their faces that this was not right. It was very, very wrong.
This was a time before Tumblr, when very few teenagers were talking about being genderqueer or transmasculine. The women I'd heard of who were allowed to dress and talk and behave like boys were all lesbians. I often wished I was a lesbian. But I almost always fancied boys, and if you fancied boys, you had to behave like a girl. And behaving like a girl was the one subject, apart from sports, that I always failed.
It was around this time that I first read second-wave feminist Germaine Greer. She seemed to explain fundamental truths that every other adult in my small universe of school, home, and the library seemed equally anxious to ignore, and it helped that there were also dirty jokes. I clung to The Female Eunuch with the zeal of a convert and the obsession of a prepubescent nerd. I wrote Greer a letter with my very favorite pens and almost imploded with excitement when she wrote back, on a postcard that had koalas on it. I resolved right then and there that one day I would be a feminist and a writer just like her.
According to Greer, liberation meant understanding that whatever you were in life, you were a woman first. Her writing helped me understand how society saw me — and every other female person I'd ever met. We were not human beings first: We were just girls. Looking back, though, that militant insistence on womanhood before everything is part of the reason it’s taken me a decade to admit that, in addition to being a feminist, I’m genderqueer. That I’m here to fight for women’s rights, that I play for the girls' team, but I have never felt like much of a woman at all.
I grew up on second-wave feminism, but that didn't stop me starving myself.
I was anorexic for large parts of my childhood and for many complex, painful, altogether common reasons, of which gender dysphoria was just one. I felt trapped by the femaleness of my body, by my growing breasts and curves. Not eating made my periods stop. It made my breasts disappear. On the downside, it also turned me into a manic, suicidal mess, forced me to drop out of school, and traumatized my entire family.
At 17, I wound up in the hospital, in an acute eating disorders ward, where I stayed for six months.
The window in my hospital room did not open more than a crack. Just wide enough to sniff a ration of fresh air before I got weighed in the morning. I turned up with all my curves starved away, with my hair cropped close to the bones of my skull, androgynous as a skeleton, insisting that people call me not Laura, but Laurie — a boy’s name in England. I was too unwell to be pleased that I finally looked as genderless as I felt. At that point, I just wanted to die. Mostly of shame.
Long story short: I didn’t die. I got better. But not before I let some well-meaning medical professionals bully me back onto the right side of the gender binary.
Psychiatric orthodoxy tends to lag behind social norms, and doctors are very busy people. So it’s not their fault that, less than 20 years after homosexuality was removed from the official list of mental disorders, the doctors treating me took one look at my short hair and baggy clothes and feminist posters and decided that I was a repressed homosexual and coming out as gay would magically make me start eating again.
Like I said, they were trying.
There was only one problem. I wasn't gay. I was sure about that. I was bisexual, and I was very much hoping that one day when I wasn't quite so weird and sad I'd be able to test the theory in practice. It took a long time to persuade the doctors of that. I can’t remember how, and I'm not sure I want to. I think diagrams may have been involved. It was a very dark time.
I was too unwell to enjoy looking as genderless as I felt.
Anyway. Eventually they gave up trying to make me come out and decided to make me go back in. If you weren’t a lesbian, the route to good mental health was to "accept your femininity." You needed to grow your hair and wear dresses and stop being so angry all the time. You needed to accept the gender and sex you had been assigned, along with all the unspoken rules of behavior involved. You needed to get a steady boyfriend and smile nicely and work hard. I repeat: These people didn’t mean to do me or anyone else lasting psychological damage. Just like every other institution through the centuries that has tried to force queer and deviant people to be normal for their own good, they truly were trying to help.
For five years, I struggled to recover. I tried hard to be a good girl. I tried to stick to the dresses, the makeup, the not being quite so strange and cross and curious all the time. For five years, I shoved my queerness deep, deep down into a private, frightened place where it only emerged in exceptional circumstances, like a bottle of cheap vodka, or a showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, or both. But being a good girl didn’t work out very well, so I cut the difference, cut my hair short, and went back to being an angry feminist.
And feminism saved my life. I got better. I wrote, and I had adventures, and I returned to politics, and I made friends. I left the trauma of the hospital far behind me and tried to cover up my past with skirts and makeup.
Today, I’m a feminist and a writer, but I no longer valorize Germaine Greer so blindly. For one thing, Greer is one of many feminists, some of them well-respected, who believe transgender people are dangerous to the movement. Their argument is pretty simple. It boils down to the idea that trans people reinforce binary thinking about gender when they choose to join the other team instead of challenging what it means to be a man or a woman. Greer has called trans women a "ghastly parody" of femaleness.
Greer’s comments about trans women exemplify the generational strife between second-wave feminists who sought to expand the definition of “woman” and the younger feminists who are looking for new gender categories altogether. This tension has been cruel to trans women, who have been cast as men trying to infiltrate women’s spaces. But it’s alienating to all corners of the LGBT community.
By the time I was well enough to consider swapping the skirts for cargo pants, changing my pronouns and the way I walked through the world, I’d become well-known as, among other things, a feminist writer.
At 24, I wrote columns about abortion rights and sexual liberation, and books about how to live and love under capitalist patriarchy. In response, young women wrote to me on a regular basis telling me that my work helped inspire them to live more freely in their femaleness. They admired me because I was a "strong woman." Would I be betraying those girls if I admitted that half the time, I didn't feel like a woman at all?
So I hoarded up my excuses for not coming out. I carefully described myself as "a person with cis privilege" rather than "a cis person" when the conversation came up. I decided that the daily emotional overheads of being a feminist writer on the internet were enough for now.
And I waited.
Over the past few years, more and more of my friends and comrades have come out as trans. I’ve been privileged to be part of a strong and supportive queer community, and it has helped that a great many of my close friends are both trans and feminist. For them, there doesn't seem to be a problem with fighting for gender equality while fighting transphobia — which sometimes, sadly, means that they’re also fighting feminists.
Many of the critiques of trans politics from feminists through the decades have been openly bigoted, the sort of self-justifying theories that let people feel OK about driving other, more vulnerable people out of their jobs, outing them to their families and welfare advisers, and putting them in danger.
Buried under the bullshit, though, are some reasonable critiques. One is that people who claim a trans identity are only doing so because gender roles are so restrictive and oppressive in the first place. Sadly, many trans people are forced to play into tired gender stereotypes in order to "prove" their identity to everyone from strangers to medical gatekeepers — not long ago, one friend of mine was queried at a gender clinic because she showed up to her appointment in baggy jeans, which was evidence of her "lack of commitment" to life as a woman. I repeat: Even trousers are political.
I regret that there wasn't more language, dialogue, and support for trans and genderqueer kids when I was a teenager and needed it most. I regret that by the time I had found that community and that language, I was too traumatized by hospital, by prejudice, and by the daily pressures of living and working in a frenzied, wearily misogynist media landscape to take advantage of the freedoms on offer. I regret the fear that kept me from coming out for so many years.
Would I betray the girls who looked up to me if I admitted that I didn't feel like a woman at all?
When I say I regret those things, I mean that I try not to think about them too much, because the knowledge of how different things could have been if I’d known as a teenager that I wasn’t alone, the thought of how else I might have lived and loved and dated if I’d had the words and the community I have now just a little sooner, opens cold fingers of longing somewhere in my stomach and squeezes tight. But when they let go, I'm also glad.
The journey I took as I came to terms with my own identity — the journey that will continue as long as I live — all of that has led me to where I am now.
More than anything, I'm excited. I'm excited to see how life is going to be different for the queer, trans, and even cis kids too, growing up in a world that has more language for gender variance. I'm excited to find out what sort of lives they will lead, from the genderqueer activists in the audience at my last reading to the barista with the orange mohawk who handed me the cup of tea I'm clutching for dear life as I write alone in this café, trying to believe that writing this piece is something other than gross self-indulgence.
The barista is wearing two name badges. One says their name; the other one says, in thick chalk capitals, I am not a girl. My pronouns are They/Them.
So here it is. I consider "woman" to be a made-up category, an intangible, constantly changing idea with as many different definitions as there are cultures on Earth. You could say the same thing about "justice" or "money" or "democracy" — these are made-up ideas, stories we tell ourselves about the shape of our lives, and yet they are ideas with enormous real-world consequences. Saying that gender is fluid doesn't mean that we have to ignore sexism. In fact, it’s the opposite.
Of course gender norms play into the trans experience. How can they not? But being trans or genderqueer, even for cis-passing people like me, is not about playing into those norms. It’s about about throwing them out. Some "radical" feminists argue that trans and genderqueer people actually shore up the gender binary by seeking to cross or straddle it rather than setting it on fire. To which I'd say: It is also possible to jump over a burning building.
In fact, watch me.
Only when we recognize that "manhood" and "womanhood" are made-up categories, invented to control human beings and violently imposed, can we truly understand the nature of sexism, of misogyny, of the way we are all worked over by gender in the end.
Coming out is an individual journey, but it is a collective weapon. Questioning gender — whether that means straddling the gender binary, crossing it, or breaking down its assumptions wherever you happen to stand — is an essential part of the feminism that has sustained me through two decades of personal and political struggle. In the end, feminists and the LGBT community have this in common: We’re all gender traitors. We have broken the rules of good behavior assigned to us at birth, and we have all suffered for it.
But here's one big way I differ from a lot of my genderqueer friends: I still identify, politically, as a woman. My identity is more complex than simply female or male, but as long as women’s reproductive freedom is under assault, sex is also a political category, and politically, I'm still on the girls' team.
I don't think that everyone who was dumped into the "female" category at birth has a duty to identify as a woman, politically or otherwise. Because identity policing, if you’ll indulge me in a moment of high theoretical language, is fucked up and bullshit. This is just how it happens to work for me.
We're all gender traitors.
In a perfect world, perhaps I'd be telling a different story. I’m never going to be able to say for sure whether in that perfect world, that world without sexism and gender oppression, that world without violence or abuse, where kittens dance on rainbows and nobody has ever heard of Donald Trump, I would feel the need to call myself genderqueer. My hunch is that I would; and all I've got for you is that hunch, along with a stack of feminist theory books and a pretty nice collection of flat caps.
I am a woman, politically, because that's how people see me and that's how the state treats me. And sometimes I’m also a boy. Gender is something I perform, when I put on my binder or paint my nails. When I walk down the street. When I talk to my boss. When I kiss my partner in their makeup and high heels.
I don’t want to see a world without gender. I want to see a world where gender is not oppressive or enforced, where there are as many ways to express and perform and relate to your own identity as there are people on Earth. I want a world where gender is not painful, but joyful.
But until then, we’ve got this one. And for as long as we all have to navigate a gender binary that’s fundamentally broken and a sex class system that seeks to break us, I’m happy to be a gender traitor.
I’m a genderqueer woman, and a feminist. My preferred pronouns are "she" or "they." I believe we’re on our way to a better world. And you can call me Laurie.
Laurie Penny is a writer and journalist from London. She is Contributing Editor at New Statesman magazine and the author of five books, most recently “Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution."