How Feminism Made Me a Man
by Anson Koch-Rein
If you are reading this issue of Women’s News and Narratives, I probably don’t need to tell you that coming out as a man is not generally one of the effects of any strand of feminism. But I, for one, was a feminist before I got to be a man. And, without feminism, I wouldn’t know how to be a man.
I cannot remember exactly when I started using the word feminist to refer to myself. I came to basic feminist convictions as someone who was supposed to be a girl but who didn’t want anything to do with girly things—including, it turns out, having to “be” a girl. As someone to whom gendered expectations made so little sense, I was—you might say—an early-onset equality feminist. Like any feminist child in training, I spent a lot of time being angry about injustices of all sorts.
Of course girls and boys should be allowed to do the same things! That was what I understood justice to be. You might conclude from this that West German children of the 1980s were into formal equality, but instead it was based on a perception of equality among my peers, no matter their gender.
I would be the first to admit that my elementary school feminism was not extremely sophisticated. Although I since have developed a taste for splitting hairs (I am getting a PhD, after all), I am still interested in what always has appeared obvious about feminism to me. Do people agree about some of these basic claims to gender equality and justice? If so, under what conditions do they—or don’t they—call themselves feminists? Why or why not? When do I consider them feminists?
What are the terms we take on? I went from being a child feminist to coming out as a teenage lesbian. The term lesbian gave me a sense of community and license to take my masculinity seriously when gendered rituals, friend groups, and interactions around me appeared to become more separate and heteronormative. Even as it dragged me farther out of my gender comfort zone, growing up on the girl side of teenage life gave me a closeup view of what feminism keeps going on about: sometimes differences need attention.
Substantive equality means doing justice to people’s actual needs and situations. Some people get pregnant. Not everyone wants to wear pants. Some people find makeup important to their gender expression. Some people are paid less. It is not easy being a girl, not even for girls. Some of the most powerful discrimination is structural, and gender is just one of the ways in which we are marked.
I moved to Berlin and spent my twenties in university classrooms absorbing gender studies and American studies, at feminist/queer events, and in drag shows. All of a sudden, I lived in a world where there was recognition for many kinds of gender and many feminisms—and they came with big words. I loved the big words. Honestly, I might have come for the politics, but I stayed for the theoretical complexity.
Feminist theory taught me to think, made me see things differently, and made me feel less trapped. I no longer had to bang my head against gender as the purported explanation for the way things were. Instead, gender became a way to question things, academically and personally. I learned to recognize more subtle forms of oppression—especially racism, nationalism, and Islamophobia—than I had been aware of before, including those sometimes coming from feminists. I thought a lot about the different ways in which race, gender, and sexuality are talked about in Germany and the US. I soaked up all the queer theory and transgender studies texts I could get my hands on. In short, I became an academic feminist.
Nowadays, I am a feminist man. I am a feminist, transgender man. I am a queer-identified trans guy, whose lessons in masculinity have come from folks of various genders. All these labels mean different things to different people. Being a feminist man sometimes means my feminism is treated as if it were something special, while the feminism of women is taken for granted. But I am a feminist for the same basic reason folks of various gender identities are: because it is about my place in the world. I have also, since childhood, been a feminist for that other reason feminists share: because it is about a different world.
Discrimination and injustice, whether directed at one of my identities or not, make me angry. Other times, my feminism gets no credit any more, because some women define their feminism as “women-only” and assume I must have had mine surgically removed when I transitioned. There are many different feminisms, however, and I am a feminist man. I have all kinds of paperwork to prove it too (which is not to say, of course, that paperwork makes the man or the feminist)—from a diploma in gender studies to a new birth certificate. When I showed my court order at the bank to change my name and legal gender, the clerk asked, “Oh, did you get married?” Feminism, of course, has a lot to say about that kind of confusion. But if you are (still) reading this, I probably don’t need to tell you that coming out as a man is not generally one of the effects of any kind of marriage.
Anson Koch-Rein is a PhD candidate in the Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts and a certificate student in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.