Trigger warning: mentions a rape and mentions rape jokes.
Before I begin, let me be clear about where I am coming from; I am a heterosexual, white, cisgender man from a lower middle class background, who is also a feminist, a pro-gay activist, and a socialist. I am also a disabled man. In other words, in the grand and complex landscape of liberation politics, I can define into one group of protected characteristics, meaning that I can stand at the front of the disability rights movement. But I am not, automatically, a good feminist or pro-gay rights activist.
The question I want to answer is simple. Can I, as a man, be a good feminist? Some would answer that I cannot. I am not female. I have never faced discrimination because of being a woman. Whilst my long hair doesn’t conform to normative models of masculinity, I have never been objectified, groped, or been paid less than my colleagues like women are on a day to day basis. Whilst I have been raped, it wasn’t because of my gender, but because I was a vulnerable child placed in the environment of a predatory and sick man.
Despite not facing the discrimination that women face, I continue, of course, to support feminism. I wish to see an end to patriarchy and gender discrimination because I believe it will better our society. I believe that as a heterosexual man, I am affected by feminist issues, but I recognise that it is in a VERY different manner to the way my female friends are. They are on the front line, as it were, and I am several miles back, still chocking on the stink of gunsmoke, but not in immediate fear of losing my life. The same would go for my gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans* friends. That is all reversed when I am with my non-disabled, but pro-disability rights friends. I am in the trenches there; my non-disabled girlfriend is back at HQ.
What I am trying to say is that if you are one of a group I am going to call the “indirectly affected” that is, a feminist man, an anti-racist white person, a pro-gay heterosexual, a pro-trans* cis-sexual, or a pro-disability rights able person (…the list goes on…), you can be a valuable friend and ally, but you need to be clear on where the boundaries are. I have tried to put these into three golden rules of being “indirectly affected”:
- Step back
By this, I mean check your privilege. As a man, I live is a society which, more often than not, takes the Daily Mail approach towards women – they are either slim beauties in bikinis to be drooled over, or they are disgraceful, for even daring to go out in public like that. This is an obvious example, but by taking a step back from the world, and thinking critically about it, the indirectly affected can help to identify the problems with society, but more importantly with themselves. For example; is that joke your friend just cracked “banter” or rape apologism? Is that TV potrayal of a disabled person sympathetic or patronising and disempowering? How did you respond to it? Would you respond in the same way? How can you change your response if it was inappropriate? And so on.
- Step up
By this, I mean, challenging prejudices and discriminatory behaviour which you have identified by stepping back. So, you are in a bar and your friend makes an inappropriate joke about some girls, and what he would like to do to them. Respond to it. Make it clear that it is not ok for that to be considered funny. This process of stepping up is different to way that feminist women step up every day of their lives against gender discrimination, but it is a chance to support them. Your step will – and should – be smaller than theres, but it is a step nonetheless.
- Listen don’t lead
As a disabled man, I would feel hurt if an able bodied person told me what they thought was right for the disability movement. The same goes for any good feminist man. Feminist men should never tell women how to think, how to act, what they think the issues are, because they are indirectly affected by them. I would like to think that I see a lot of gender equality in society. I am, however, looking through the veil of my own privilege as a man. Thus, I’ll defer to women gladly, whether it is speaking at a feminist meeting or discussion group, or at a rally. I am learning new things about feminism every day, from the books I read, from Butler, Dworkin, Serano, but I am learning just as much from all the amazing women who have taught me how to understand my position as a feminist man. Likewise, I would like to think, in return, I have taught the able bodied a lot about disability.
So step back, step up and listen and learn; the complicated but necessary dance of the indirectly affected. Before I close, I feel that whilst all of these are important, the most important is the first – being able to step back, and self analyse, and realise that the privilege you have often obscures your vision. Perhaps worse than being an enemy is being the kind of ally who tramples down the handwork of women (and other liberation activists) with well meaning but misguided footsteps.