by KC Vlaine
In this piece, I introspect about how and why I—a straight cis guy—identify as a feminist and became an ally: on the role played by my childhood, mother and other women in my life. Further, I describe the rewarding process of trying to apply my feminist ideals to my personal life and relationships.
Let’s begin with the way I was raised. My mother is a deeply empathetic woman, who has always taught me to consider what other people think. Gender was never a factor in my upbringing—I never had to conform to a certain role. If I cried, she simply addressed my emotions, instead of telling me that boys don't cry. My father was pretty much absent, sitting in his room in front of a computer for much of our lives. The mainstream ideal of masculinity was mostly absent from my household, and I grew up a happy, skinny boy. Whenever I was exposed to the masculinity norm, it was via video games or cartoons, so gender was little more than a conceptual idea. My self-worth ended up grounded in my creative abilities, rather than how well I performed a role.
My relatively neutral upbringing primed me for the next big influence—speaking to women around me about what they’ve been through. My mother—I realised as I got older—was in an emotionally and physically abusive marriage, and had shielded us from that reality. The way society—especially the police—reacted to the situation, which was with a resigned indifference—forced me to think about it as a large problem in society. Once my parents separated, my brother and I became friends to my mother, hearing her out. I don't think we really understood much at the age of 11 and 12, respectively, but we did learn how to really listen.
As I found female friends and romantic partners in life, I found I wanted more than just a superficial engagement—I wanted to really get to know them. I earned their trust over time and they began to tell me how they had encountered violence at the hands of men. I cannot share the stories, obviously, but it scared me that most of the women I became close to had experienced violence in their life, and had trauma hidden underneath their wonderful personas. Contrary to the common rhetoric that women these days are seeking attention by whining about these things, in my experience, I’ve found that most of the stories remain untold and don’t come up until I myself seek to understand the origins of a person’s tendencies, preferences, fears or issues. It is I who had to explore the person and find these reasons, which would probably have never come out had I not made the effort—so I don’t buy the ‘attention’ nonsense that goes around in men’s circles.
While I believe I am not a fully mobilised ally yet (I don't go out and march, nor am I involved in any grassroot activities), I do speak up online and I try to find ways to influence people around me positively, through poetry, attending LGBTQ events as an ally, writing and performing feminist poetry, etc. That said, I think most of my efforts have been quite personal and inward. If feminism includes the act of questioning a system by examining its impact on oneself, and working to undo its machinations, then I've been a feminist since before I knew the word.
I often examine my toxic emotions such as jealousy, insecurity and rage. Sometimes I do this through poetry, at other times I put myself in situations that might trigger negative feelings, and search for the potential to turn those feelings around. For example, I’d discuss the possibility of opening a relationship up with a partner who was up for it, to see what thoughts would come up in my head. The goal wasn’t to actually open it up, but for me to access my vulnerability in small ways. It let me push my limits at a pace I was comfortable with, in situations I was still in control of. I can't say I've been very successful, but I've had flashes of clarity which I hold onto at times when I feel like a mean, patriarchal numbskull. In the example of talking about opening the relationship up, there were instances when the idea did seem beautiful and free of the usual negative feelings. Am I ready to be in an open relationship? No. But I realised I was really NOT ready for it despite being interested in the idea—and this is a tactic that helps me assess my state of mind without risking anything more than my mood for the day. You could say I treat my brain like a petri dish, putting things in it to see what grows and what festers—and the insights prove to be invaluable.
The result of these personal experiments directly impact the way I treat women. I treat my subconscious as a separate entity from my conscious self, so when my mind reacts to a situation with a thought like 'yeah, sluts are like that' or 'women seem to have this tendency', I let the thought play out, keep it to the side, and try to minimise its affect on my actions. I do this with entire emotions sometimes and it really helps my relationships with them. I am in no way free of these thoughts, but I am not controlled by them. I take it as a challenge to rise above them rather than deny their existence or bury them.
Furthermore, since I’m aware that I am only somewhat conscious of my own thoughts, I am humble when making assessments about other people’s psychology. A lot of men seem convinced that they understand women, or men, etc. I’m not, because I struggle to understand myself so I’m in no position to form assumptions about how someone else behaves, leave alone someone who has a very different experience of life from my own. All this helps to keep sexism at bay.
That said, this process is often very unpleasant, stressful, emotionally draining, and often shows me what's wrong without showing me how to 'fix' the issue. It is difficult to face one's conditioning, and undoing it is a long-drawn process that requires commitment. This realisation has shaped my views on the feminist movement itself, that seems to demand sudden, fundamental changes within people's minds. My instinctive reactions, however toxic, are tied deeply into my self worth and I have realised that logical arguments have very little bearing on how one’s mind reacts to things. It's tricky enough to try and change one's brain when one wants to, forget change someone else’s mind when they don't want to. We can't amputate a person’s conditioning overnight. For me, it’s been a process—and that’s something I consider in my own efforts to influence people positively, like when I’m trying to explain to a male friend how his thoughts might be sexist. Being aggressive just makes them avoid talking to me, while hearing them out and then explaining how my approach has made my life better, seems to work better.
When look inward though, I often examine my misogynistic reactions to events with surprise, and even disgust. For instance, paranoid, sexist thoughts that popped into my head about a partner when she would hang out with other men. I often wondered where these underlying insecurities and aggressive tendencies stem from, despite my generally high levels of self confidence. I’m still nowhere near free of these thoughts but I’ve found some methods to handle them. First and foremost, I have frank and honest talks with the partner, with an emphasis on the fact that these thoughts, while representative of certain forces within my mind, do not define my overall feelings for them, nor my opinions of them. I’ve found that helps us both treat it like a problem we can both solve together, and having a supportive partner helps immensely. In times when I don’t want to burden my partner (because it’s obviously quite unpleasant for them) I try to face it alone. I first burn off the aggression through other activities, and then deal with the issues through writing or talking about it with people who I know have worked through the same issues.
Sometimes I wonder if the solution to sexism lies not just in attacking patriarchy, but also replacing it with a better system. I have seen how my efforts have paid off in how they reward me with the kind of relationships and friendships that make life a wonderful experience no matter what is going on. And I know that once more men experience this, they might choose to abandon the sexist conjecture that ruins their chances at the deep, powerful relationships they so desperately need.
Know an ally working actively to make a difference? Witness to a heroic act that deserves recognition? Send us a lead at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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