Ain’t I a Woman/Womyn/Wimmin?

Dyke March Card

Maybe not.

While at Brooklyn Pride this year, I was handed a postcard for this year’s NYC Dyke March. In bold, red letters, the postcard proclaims: “Women! Womyn! Wimmin!” and, below, says “This march is for women only. Allies should cheer us from the sidelines.”

The postcard left me wondering where I belonged – in the march, as I’ve been every year since moving to NYC in 2002, or on the sidelines.

Last year, there was something of a campaign at the Dyke March. People handed out stickers that said, “A Dyke March for All Dykes.” These folks were primarily calling for the inclusion of dyke-identified trans men in the Dyke March.

Something about this protest rubbed me the wrong way. I think it had a lot to do with the people who were most visibly involved – mostly white, mostly thin, mostly “good looking” by typical standards trannyboys who seem to occupy a particular scene in NYC – the scene in which (certain) trans guys are omgsohott!!! In my limited interaction with this scene, I’ve felt a lot of entitlement and a certain amount of privilege, namely racial and male, (though I’m quick to acknowledge that the male privilege that a trans man may possess is thoroughly complicated by the lack of privilege that comes with being trans.) The crowd that seemed to be calling most loudly for trans male inclusion in the Dyke March, and the particular way in which they went about it, did not make me so sympathetic to the cause, despite my understanding of and, in large part, agreement with their points.

There was a pretty big debate last year with (and within) the Dyke March Planning Committee over whether the march should be explicitly women-only, or whether it should be opened to dykes of many genders, including dyke-identified trans men and genderqueers. The portions of the debate that I witnessed were thoroughly upsetting; there was a whole lot of transphobia lacing the entire thing, and a whole lot of wilful ignorance and reductionism around people’s gender. I myself went to the beginning of a Dyke March planning meeting and spoke to some of the organizers. One particularly prevalent message that I heard was that genderqueers, and maybe even trans men, could attend the March as long as they came to it identifying with and embracing whatever part of them was still “woman.”

This notion – that, deep down inside, all trans men and genderqueers still have a “woman” side – really pisses me off. It is completely invalidating of many people’s gender identities, and is an attempt to reinforce a gender binary that dictates that, when you get down to it, everyone is really either a woman or a man as determined by whatever gender they were assigned at birth. Some trans men and genderqueers who were female-assigned at birth might embrace or acknowledge a female or woman side of themselves, which is a completely valid and wonderful individual choice. (Though, actually, who am I or anyone else to say whether someone else’s understanding of their gender is valid or not?) However, that choice cannot and should not be forced upon all trans men or genderqueers. And when the organizers of the Dyke March or any other space say that, somehow, they’re welcoming trans men and genderqueers when they say “women only,” that’s exactly what they’re doing – stripping people of their right to gender self-identification and pushing them into one of two predefined boxes.

As far as I understand it, one of the primary motivations behind the Dyke March has always been visibility – the visibility of dykes and other queer women within a larger queer movement that has often completely ignored them or pushed their needs and issues to the side. Therefore, it makes me profoundly sad that the Dyke March is making increasingly invisible those people who have long been part of the lesbian/dyke/queer women’s communities, but do not, perhaps, fully or even remotely identify as “women.”

I, myself, am included among that number. When people ask me my gender in a free-form manner, I always respond with “genderqueer butch.” That’s my gender, to a T. It fits me better than any other gender label that I’ve come across. The term “woman” is so loaded down with so much cultural and societal connotation that I’m not really all that comfortable with it, under most circumstances.

Somehow, “woman of color” is different. It doesn’t bother me nearly as much, it’s something I can identify with much more easily and it’s an identity that I embrace. A lot of that is about kinship, about shared experience, and about solidarity. It’s far easier for me to be proud of being a woman of color, to be comfortable being a woman of color, than it is for me to be comfortable just being labeled as a woman.

And it’s not as if I don’t identify with the label “women” at all. I do. I function in this binary gender world primarily as a woman. I am denied privilege and discriminated against as a woman; I receive privilege as a non-trans woman. I am seen by most as a woman who doesn’t act like a woman should, but a woman nonetheless. And, when pressed, when given the choice between two options, man or woman, I will (at this point in my life, at least) invariably choose woman.

That’s the thing, though – I don’t like having to choose between two boxes and squeeze myself in, however bad the fit may be. I am perfectly content identifying as a genderqueer butch, full stop. I don’t feel that I need to tack “woman” onto that to preserve my connection to women’s struggles, to women’s cultures, to women’s communities. I don’t feel the need to do so in order to share the kinship and community that I do with other women of color. And I certainly don’t think that I need to call myself a woman in order to prove my allegience to women or to feminism.

It sucks that I’m so often forced to choose between the two, or that the choice is made for me when people make assumptions based on how I look or sound. It’s something that I deal with almost constantly – any time I meet someone new, speak to someone on the phone, or am forced to choose a gendered title like Ms or Mrs or Mr; any time that I walk into a public restroom and get the double-takes, the questioning, and eventual approval after I reluctantly say “Yes, I’m a woman;” any time someone calls my office asking for me after only reading my name in an email or on a website and I hear those few moments of confusion before they decide, “Oh, this must be a woman named Jack.” However, I’m fairly used to all of that. I expect it from mainstream society, and those low expectations make it a little easier to deal with.

But it’s a whole other story when it’s communities that I expect more from, like queer communities. To be pushed into boxes by people who struggle against being shoved into boxes of their own, to be made to feel invisible and disrespected by people who know what it feels like to have to fight to be seen and respected for who one truly is – that’s a special kind of hurt right there.

So, will I march this year, or not? I don’t know. I sure as hell won’t be cheering from the sidelines like I’m apparently supposed to. I’m either in it or I’m not. I know that the Dyke March isn’t really about the policies that some small, select group of women come up with; it’s about the collective power and often disparate voices of all of the people who show up to march. I know that it’s not likely that anyone will try to enforce this policy, and I know that, even if they did, I’d be lucky enough, in a way, to be read as a woman and let be. But I don’t know if I’d be able to really have fun and enjoy myself without having that queasy feeling that comes when you’re forced to pass for something that you’re not.

If I do march, I think I might make a sign to carry. I’m thinking it’ll be a list of labels with checkboxes next to them – woman, womyn, wimmin, genderqueer butch. The checkboxes next to the first three will have a big red “x” through them; the checkbox next to the last will have a big green check through it. And then the sign will say, “Am I still welcome here? If I am, then say it!”

*****

I’m writing about my own experience as a not-exactly-woman-identified person, but I’d also like to point out that many people who very happily identify as women are not truly welcomed or included in many women’s and dyke spaces and communities – namely, trans women.

Yes, the NYC Dyke March, like many other similar spaces, is “officially” open to all women – as their website reads, “biological or otherwise,” because, you know, all those trans women out there are inorganic or mechanical or something. (Trans women are women, just as biological as any other women. The term “non-trans” is far more respectful and accurate than “biological.”) But there’s a big difference between talking the talk of including trans women, and walking the walk of truly making a community or space welcoming and inclusive of trans women. The former is easily about posturing and empty declarations; the latter is about changing personal attitudes and overcoming individual, collective, and institutional transphobia.

Some friends of mine have posted a petition to demonstrate community support of trans women that will be circulated at the Dyke March on Saturday. I encourage you all to read it and sign on if you’re down with it. There’s no automated way to sign online quite yet, but if you email me (see “Contact Me” on the sidebar) or leave your name and location in the comments, I’ll be sure to pass it on to them.

13 Responses to “Ain’t I a Woman/Womyn/Wimmin?”


  1. 1 myles

    yes, yes and yes. thanks, jack. :)

  2. 2 EL

    Something about this protest rubbed me the wrong way. I think it had a lot to do with the people who were most visibly involved – mostly white, mostly thin, mostly “good looking” by typical standards trannyboys who seem to occupy a particular scene in NYC – the scene in which (certain) trans guys are omgsohott!!!

    I know exactly what you’re talking about and have had, despite being cisgendered, a lot of concerns about the way “the scene” inscribes something “new” which is actually quite a bit about certain fashion trends. I think that these folks wouldn’t know what to do with a transguy who didn’t happen to be wearing their designated “transguy uniform” and using their designated “transguy speak”. And it’s nothing if not liberal-arts-educated, middle-class and white.

    Frankly though, it’s just another manifestation of the conformity a lot of queer “scene” culture imposes. It opens up the possibility for “something else” only an inch and that inch becomes the only space for different self-expressions.

    If I do march, I think I might make a sign to carry. I’m thinking it’ll be a list of labels with checkboxes next to them – woman, womyn, wimmin, genderqueer butch. The checkboxes next to the first three will have a big red “x” through them; the checkbox next to the last will have a big green check through it. And then the sign will say, “Am I still welcome here? If I am, then say it!”

    I think this is a great idea and that, actually, the Dyke March is a good avenue for this sort of activism. It will force people to think because the Dyke March has such a spirit of camraderie that I think if there’s a chance of it hitting home, the Dyke March is that chance.

    I also think a lot more dykes and transfolks can relate to this than might admit it on a daily basis. There’s so much fear of being “in between”.

    In the world in general, but ESPECIALLY in the queer community, these labels are simply superfluous and awkward for many people to apply in a stringent way. As you say, you can both not identify as a woman and not not identify as a woman. Sometimes one side of the binary fits better (if not ideally), sometimes the other does, all in the same individual, depending on hir goals and senses of belonging.

    Anyway, I will be gone for the Dyke March this year, but I wanted to say that, if I’d seen you with that sign, I’d have given you a high-five.

  3. 3 amy

    Whew, that’s a lot to take in and is well worth thinking on. My initial impression is that you feel distressed, betrayed even, by a community you’ve been a part of & has provided support but now seems to shun you because you no longer fit into one of the accepted labels, which puts you in a position of ‘react or be passive?’ Sorry to be so simplisitic … I’m just gathering my own thoughts on how I feel about the gay girl scene in general and the dyke march specifically.

    I’ve participated several years in the march, sporadically so, and always feel ambivalent about the whole thing – before, during, and after. Granted, I’ve attended as a white, middle class lesbian, which provides a certain privilege when questioning my status, nonetheless, I’ll still out myself and say I’ve never felt comfortable being in the march mix. And my discomfort has nothing to do with me being out in the daily world, which I am.

    The first thing I always wanted to take the march to task for was its seeming overall purpose: visibility. I realize we need to be visible as [insert non-hetero label here]. I get it. But the “how” of our visibility, or rather, the message we’re sending in the presentation of the march is problematic. It’s too simple on the surface and not enough is done with that visibility.

    We walk, we chant or dance or sing, we wave signs demanding equal rights, etc. On the surface, it’s a political thing in a public world that says, Check out our numbers, we’re like you, and we don’t always look like you, etc. but we deserve the same respect and rights you get. But as you’ve noted, if you’re not a non-hetero, you must be easily and visibly categorizable into whatever trendy or standard mold the ladies’ community deems fitting. The model of the dyke march simply mirrors the hetero world that negotiates public realtions via power exchanges based on specific criteria such as class, race, socio-economic status, looks, etc. Based on the signs we carry and the chants we shout, we’re not asking for anything to be different. The march seems to be just a demand expressing our desire to “participate” in the dominant model that currently functions as the norm, a model that wreaks havoc on the world-at -large, tearing other countries down and using those not at the top of our own hierarchy. Com’on: there is no equality, no peace, etc! And we want our community to be in on that? We want to assimilate?? At least, that’s the idea that the march seems to promote to the audience of the norm.

    Now I ‘fit’ based on looks, but I don’t know what that achieves in the march. Am I simply filling a slot for those ooglers on the sidelines to gape at? Moreover, what statement am I really making about identity when I march and confirm the “other’s” existence and yet meld into my pocket of of the lesbian community? I don’t know what, precisely, the march could do to turn the tides of the message I think the straight world gets when they read us (which is, “Let us in!” “View us as a normal part of the world too”), but I think it would be more radical and important to let them know that we’re not just asking for rights (not to detract from the merits of that cause), but that we want something even bigger: we want an overhaul of how things work — and ‘we will not accept your version of normal! It’s abusive, parasitic on those that don’t have privilege and power, and we, as a community, won’t stand for just being accepted by you and then melting into the mainframe like good little citizens.’

    Okay, I’ve gone off long enough — and this tangent doesn’t really speak directly to your experience so much, except I think it’s certainly related to the structure and purpose of the dyke march in the bigger picture — it often comes back to the prestentation of ‘we’re as good as you’ which inevitably becomes a comparison contest (i.e. I can have a family just like you or what-have-you) to the point that the community won’t risk offering up unpalatable, new definitions of “human” and “community” to the outside world, because we want the comparison to be on par with the norm, so therefore, power relations in the dyke world mirror power relations in the hetero world — so our categories might be a different, but they’re still about power relations and fitting in and appearing proper, etc, — rather than challenging how we might go about co-existing in a myriad of ways that don’t simply function on obtaining power over one another …

    I’m getting cyclical here so I’ll conclude. Like I said, I don’t readily have alternatives to what can be practically done to communicate with the dyke march audience in a more productive way. When I’ve marched in the past, my sign said, “Leggo My Eggo,” and I waved at people on the street while smiling and telling them that “I”m not here for you!” Most of the marchers don’t even directly engage those on the sidelines, from what I’ve seen (unless it’s to wave back someone cheering). They resign themselves to being a part of the spectacle — and it needn’t be that way. Thought it’s a march, we can still see and are quite close to those onlookers who appear to be the status quo; we can engage with them, literally. The march moves slow enough most of the time, and people often shout things that get ignored by the marchers or just get cursed and dismissed. And can’t our signs reflect the sentiment outlines above? And can’t we hand out flyers that do the same? Just throwing out possibilities … but I guess organizing such a complex, unpopular statement would be out of range of possibilities…

    Good god. Sorry to use your comment forum as my own personal therapy workshop. I hope you feel okay about whatever decision you make regarding the march!

  4. 4 amy

    I would be remiss if I didn’t add that because on the surface the lesbian community does seem to be mirroring the norm, even with different categories (or on our own terms), we’re still making a similar power-driven model that includes distinguising criteria within those categories, adopted directly from the hierarchical norm, the top includes ‘white, wealthy, young, etc.’ In that norm community, categories are ranked, and power relations entail enacting who is higher (or more empowered or ‘better’ than) who via posturing, poisitioning, allowing certain power level categories access, etc. On the other end of the spectrum are those that don’t fit and are shunned/locked out — in the lesbian community, you might be a boi, or a softball dyke, or whatever label is positioned in the hierarchy, but as you noted with the acceptance of trans, it’s contingent on looks and race and age, and I venture that the category itself has been on the lower part of the pyramid of access, though it may be moving up (I’m a little out of touch on the social scene). Anyway, hence your predicament of not being welcomed — you’re not high up on that crappy model we seem to be mirroring.

  5. 5 sw

    Yay, Jack! I was glad to see you with your sign at the march!

    Thanks also for posting this year’s flyer – I hadn’t seen it yet, and I have to say it was surprising to see the Lesbian Avengers’ bomb icons alongside “women, womyn, wimmin” because to me they symbolize such different political frameworks.

    Do you know Bernice Johnson Reagon’s “Coalition Politics: Turning the Century?” She wrote it in response to separatism at women’s music festivals in the early 80s – she does a great job of explaining why separatism at women’s music festivals is harmful, how festivals should really be seen as coalitions and how hard coalition work is:

    “I wish there had been another way to graphically make me feel it because I belong to the group of people who are having a very difficult time being here. I feel as if I’m gonna keel over any minute and die. That is often what it feels like if you’re really doing coalition work. Most of the time you feel threatened to the core and if you don’t, you’re not really doing no coalescing.”

    If you haven’t seen the piece, it’s included in Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, Kitchen Table Press, 1983.

    At the meetings to organize the march, did you have a sense of who the activists were who wanted to define the march as women only and what their agenda was? Were they older lesbians who had come out into lesbian feminism in the 70s and 80s, or younger people who have encountered the idea of “women-only” more recently? Is this a transphobic response to the trans men’s protest last year? Or a re-emergence of separatism for some other reason? Or has the NY dyke march always been this way?

    I’m new to the area, so last year was my first time at the dyke march here. The Boston Dyke march website is much better:

    Boston Dyke March
    Join thousands of dykes, lesbians, bisexuals, queers, genderqueers, transwomen, transmen and their allies marching for political and cultural change.

    I’m really curious as to why/how NY’s has gone in such a different direction…?

  6. 6 sw

    Yay, Jack! I was glad to see you with your sign at the march!

    Thanks also for posting this year’s flyer – I hadn’t seen it yet, and I have to say it was surprising to see the Lesbian Avengers’ bomb icons alongside “women, womyn, wimmin” because to me they symbolize such different political frameworks.

    But it’s a whole other story when it’s communities that I expect more from, like queer communities. To be pushed into boxes by people who struggle against being shoved into boxes of their own, to be made to feel invisible and disrespected by people who know what it feels like to have to fight to be seen and respected for who one truly is – that’s a special kind of hurt right there.

  7. 7 Rachel S

    This was a really good piece, and it reminds me of the reason I think it is better to organize around ideas than identities. I’ll take an ally of a different identity over a person with the same identity but a different philosophy.

  8. 8 Dylan

    This shocks me that the NYC march and the Boston march have portrayed themselves so differently. I know they are each run by individual boards of local “dykes”… but I would still think there would be some uniformity. The Boston Dyke March invitation/flyer read “lesbians – dykes – bi-women – boychicks – tomboys – grrrls – lesbian moms – lesbianas femmes – butches – transwomen – androgs – queer women – gay girls – womanists – sororitygirls with pearls who are sleeping together – dykes on bikes – lesbian crones – african american lesbians – rural dykes – goddesses – poly girls – amazons – hippy chicks lipstick lesbians – asian dykes – lesbian avengers – dykes in wheelchairs – wise old lesbians – leather dykes – babydykes”

  9. 9 mark

    Hi! Love your blog. Just letting you know that boston’s dyke march includes queer allies and is a really fun time.

  10. 10 amberite

    Hi. I just found your blog, and I’m really, REALLY glad that someone like you exists.

    It sucks that I’m so often forced to choose between the two, or that the choice is made for me when people make assumptions based on how I look or sound. It’s something that I deal with almost constantly – any time I meet someone new, speak to someone on the phone, or am forced to choose a gendered title like Ms or Mrs or Mr; any time that I walk into a public restroom and get the double-takes, the questioning, and eventual approval after I reluctantly say “Yes, I’m a woman;” any time someone calls my office asking for me after only reading my name in an email or on a website and I hear those few moments of confusion before they decide, “Oh, this must be a woman named Jack.” However, I’m fairly used to all of that. I expect it from mainstream society, and those low expectations make it a little easier to deal with.

    I’m wondering if I’m going to wind up, eventually, as a man with a female name. I have a female name and like it. It’s my chosen name, and it’s not frilly, and I like it. I would also like to grow a beard, and lower my voice. Most likely this will wind up with me going by initials in common job situations etc.

  1. 1 AngryBrownButch » Blog Archive » post-post-Pride recap
  2. 2 Trans Day of Action - Friday, June 27, NYC at AngryBrownButch
  3. 3 Frodo » Blog Archive » Hypoallergenic is the shit.
Comments are currently closed.