I’m a cisgendered man and a proud feminist, pursuing a PhD in women’s studies. This fact solicits strange looks and even stranger comments from a host of interlocutors. Apparently, most people harbor very specific notions of what feminists and women’s studies majors look like, and I don’t quite measure up.
For a lot of people, “women’s studies major” and “feminist” are preceded by the compound adjective “man-hating.” Such common collocations preclude men (at least those who are not profoundly self-loathing) from adopting these labels. A feminist is a cranky woman who can’t deal with her own inadequacies, so she blames men for her lack of success. Her response to phantom sexism is attempted emasculation.
Male professors, somewhat sympathetic to what they perceive to be the feminist cause, have said things that reveal similar beliefs. One male professor explicitly told me that feminism is the project of dismantling male privilege. Thus, no man could pursue his rational self-interest and be a feminist.
Some self-identified feminists have also taken issue with my participation in classes and activism. For these feminists, gender is the only axis of difference that matters. My gender makes me part of the problem, and precludes my involvement with any attempted solution. Men are violent. They exploit and abuse women. All men enjoy unfettered privilege that is dependent on the continued subjugation of women.
These notions of feminism are pervasive, but they fail to account for the complex ways in which race, class, sexuality, nationality, and gender intersect to order our world. In recent decades, academic feminism has moved toward a more comprehensive study of power and difference. But, overly simplistic notions persist, leading many to look at me as though I have two heads when I say, “I’m a feminist.”
I believe that white, upper/upper-middle class, straight, cisgendered men may respond to an ethical imperative to advocate for equality and justice, even in cases where such a move may work against their own self-interest. But, for me––a queer man from a lower-class background––rational self interest compels me to be a feminist.
Feminism remains the most promising movement to bring equal opportunity and fairness to people like me. I am not privy to the experience of being female, and I wouldn’t dare to equate my situation with that of a woman. However, gender hierarchy affects me negatively on a daily basis. As a gay man, I’m often perceived as less than masculine, and therefore the bearer of many negative qualities historically associated with women. Watch any sitcom or movie and it quickly becomes apparent that gay men are generally perceived to be superficial, vapid, flighty, and incompetent, with unrestrained sexual desire. This stereotyping of gay men rests on their association with femininity, making homophobia an extension of sexism. Feminist efforts to ensure women’s access to education, equal pay, healthcare, childcare, etc. also enhance the lives of children (including boys) growing up in lower/working-class families. In a world where class remains the most significant factor in predicting academic achievement, these feminist goals have very real significance for the lifelong development of people of all genders who come from lower socioeconomic status.
I’m a feminist for a number of reasons. I have watched the women in my life struggle against misogyny, and my love for them dictates that I advocate for gender equality. But, beyond the benefits for my female loved ones, feminism also offers hope for people like me, who, despite being male, are forced to grapple with the ways in which the subjugation of women fosters widespread injustice and inequality.