Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Taking Her Name: On Queer Male "Woman-Identification" and Feminist Theory

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Taking Her Name: On Queer Male "Woman-Identification" and Feminist Theory

Article excerpt

For several years I've wanted to return to a naive but earnest essay--about the position of the "woman-identified male" in feminism--that constituted my final project for a Women's Studies course called Philosophical Perspectives of Women. The year was 1989, and I was a sophomore English major, one of two males in the class. This essay, like that one, will bring together the personal and the theoretical, but now, in hindsight and with the horizon still shifting, feminist theory seems as fluid as "the personal," as the daily lives from out of which theory speaks and to which theory speaks.

This essay challenges my original argument for "woman-identified male" as an identity category. I do not seek to disavow what anyone might claim or name as a lived experience, but to focus, instead, on my own act of claiming and the name I gave my experience. Reading over the original essay, I am surprised that I wasn't more blind-spotted or defensive. What strikes me as the essay's primary essentialism is my consistent deferral to what I perceived as the more authentic experience of the biological female as a culturally-constructed woman.

While everywhere I went, I was assumed to be female, "mistaken" for a woman.

I wasn't trying to pass as a woman but when I didn't pass it became an issue of not passing. I wore thrift shop clothes and junk-store jewelry and my long hair bunned, but underneath it all were boxer shorts. I didn't sprout a beard-hair until I was 24, but I never shaved my legs. I carried a satchel, but the compliment was always "I like your purse." And acquaintances remember my flared pants as long skirts. I did draw a fine-line with my finery, my appearance-oriented gender-bending, not as transgender as others assumed. This was before the name "transgendered" emerged, anyway, when the "gay group" on campus was The Gay and Lesbian People's Union (versus today's all-inclusive title Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals, Transgendered, & Friends). There were androgynes, but androgyny--in popular culture--registered as gender-bending not gender-blending. And I felt blurry.

I stopped going to the men's room. Several times as I washed my hands in a public men's room, an entering man gasped, exiting with a blushing "Sorry" only to re-enter, aggressively suspicious after seeing that he had indeed entered the men's room, the right room, in which I was clearly wrong. Female friends would say, "Come go with me," but I was just as wrong (legally in this case) "going" in the women's room--even if I sat down to do it. Misidentified in one room, I as an atypically feminine "intruder" risked male violence. In the other room, mis-identified as a typically violent male intruder, I risked arrest. I was trapped, nervously bladdered, somewhere between the urinal cake and the tampon dispenser. Forever having to pee.

I was looking for a name, for myself or my experience. I considered "perceived woman." Walking down a given street, I became adept at telling when strangers perceived me as female (normal response--no anxiety about difference) and when they perceived me as male (surprised or threatened reaction, pause of what?; realization-revulsion however minimal or polite; or sometimes that transgressing second look). This shifting in being perceived translated into a shifting perception of myself, shifting every time I was seen or talked to on the phone or read in poetry workshops. Well aware of violence against women, I nonetheless rated rape a possibility should I be assumed female, while bashing rated an inevitability should I be clocked as natively male; and should a rapist assume me female, surely realization of my maleness would incur bashing. This shifting risk as a "perceived woman" and "presumed fag" brought home to me the biding relationship between misogyny and homophobia, but the name "perceived-woman" expressed only resemblance to, not identification with, women.

This return-essay asks the questions: Was I so mistaken to name myself a woman-identified man? …

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