Although feminism is described as “the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men,” despite common belief, you don’t have identify as a woman to advocate for these rights.
My current partner is a great example of this; apart from his class, he is very privileged from a cultural perspective, being a straight, white, cisgender, able-bodied male. The fact that our relationship is interracial adds another complexity. Before I met Dylan, I was against dating someone like him for political reasons. Since Dylan wasn’t a feminist before I met him, I had the opportunity to watch his social justice awakening before my eyes. I didn’t force or coerce him to become a feminist, but I did obviously give him some pointers along the way. This is our feminist journey.
I had often found it difficult to feel emotional connections with men in the past. Unfortunately our culture often socializes boys and men to be closed off from their feelings. As someone who is very in tune with my emotions, it’s been hard for me to date someone who puts up emotional barriers. I didn’t feel this way with Dylan. He was, and still is, sensitive and enjoyed talking about his feelings. I can honestly say that Dylan is probably the kindest person I have ever met, and from the moment I met him I felt like I could talk to him about anything. It’s no wonder our connection was so instant.
Because Dylan didn’t feel confined by traditionally masculine stereotypes, I was surprised by his reaction when I revealed to him that I was a feminist. He had opened several doors for me and I would always say, “Thank you, but you don’t always have to do that.” He told me that he was a gentleman and would always hold the door open for a lady. I told him “I’m a feminist. I hold the door open for everyone.” His shock and nervousness at my mention of this word shows just how much the negative tropes surrounding feminism are imbedded into our society, albeit heteronormative traditions.
Dylan comes from a lower income family, ethnically Jewish but non-religious background, and he was raised by a single mother. With this context, it’s understandable why he would support the goals of feminism. However, his initial apprehension was a result of being raised in a culturally conservative area of Virginia where gender roles were very much intact. He only knew of the destructive stereotypes associated with feminism. I was the first person he ever met who self-identified as a feminist.
When I asked him if he was a feminist, he said, “No, I believe in equal rights for everyone.” I replied, “That’s what feminism is.” Although this is an oversimplification, equal rights for everyone is a major part of most mainstream feminist ideologies. Not a lot of people, even those in the public eye, seem to understand this. He didn’t automatically become a feminist after this interaction, but Dylan later told me it was an epiphany for him.
After discovering I was a feminist, Dylan quickly let go of gender roles from our relationship without much fuss. In the beginning he would want to pay for everything, but he soon didn’t mind us taking turns.
He became noticeably upset when others imposed traditional gender roles on us. One time when we were at the convenience store, I paid for our purchase. The cashier took notice of this and told us, “Shouldn’t he be the one paying?” Dylan rolled his eyes and grabbed the bag so we could leave. As we walked out, the cashier said, “At least he holds the bags for you.” We both joked later about the ignorance of these statements.
I began to feel really comfortable with Dylan. We were both critical of capitalism and he likes listening to my feminist rants about our white supremacist, patriarchal society. In fact, he would often ask me questions about my feminist opinions and knowledge, not in a challenging or hostile way, but in the sense that I could really see he wanted to learn more.
“Aren’t women privileged because when a ship sinks they rescue women and children first?” he asked during one of our conversations. I talked to him about benevolent sexism, and how what people think of as female privilege usually boils down to women being seen as the weaker sex. “I never thought of it like that before,” he replied.
Dylan had limited experience with queer and trans folk before we started dating, so inviting him in to my circle of friends opened his eyes to struggles he didn’t even realize existed before. He had never even heard the terms transwoman and transman before to describe trans individuals. He thought the ugly t-word was the proper term for referring to trans people because it was the only thing he had ever heard; a symptom of our media’s terrible portrayal of trans people. After finding out that it’s a hurtful and defaming word, Dylan eliminated it completely from his vocabulary. It’s a simple but refreshing act, because many people become defensive when confronted with their offensive language.
Obviously race comes up often as a topic in our relationship. Privilege theory was new to Dylan, but he soon became aware of the benefits he gained from being a straight white male. Things that concerned me and what I had to be aware of — like being judged for my natural hair or colorism in the black community — were things he never had to think about or acknowledge. This made him aware of why intersectional feminism — the kind I subscribe to — is so important. He has been careful to check his privilege and not to take a dominating role in our relationship. This is significant considering the history of relations between white men and black women in America.
Here’ one incident that he sees as really opening his eyes to white privilege: I came home with a friend of mine, who is also black, and we told Dylan about these white people who shouted the N-word at us from their car. I’m aware that racism is alive and well in our country so I was upset, but not shocked. Dylan, however, was horrified that people still used that word in a derogatory manner. He realized that as a white male it was easier for him to walk down the street in peace.
At this point of the story, Dylan and I are a few months into our relationship. Dylan is an avid gamer and he would sometimes listen in when I watched Feminist Frequency videos. I later found out that a combination of what he heard from those videos and what he learned from me encouraged him to identify as a feminist
Of course when Dylan came out and told me that he was a feminist, I was ecstatic. I even bought him the The Guy’s Guide to Feminism. It may not be bell hook’s reading material but it’s informative as an introductory guide.
Dylan and I are still together much long after he first told me he was a feminist, and our relationship has never been better. Gender roles aren’t even something we think about. We just do what comes naturally to us. Even though I identify as queer, we regularly discuss the privileges we have as a heterosexual couple, and the disadvantages we occasionally face as an interracial couple.
Our society sends us a lot of toxic messages about heterosexual relations between men and women. We are taught that that men and women are completely different and will never understand each other. Contrary to all this, a study has shown that feminism may improve the quality of heterosexual relationships.
It’s called understanding. When both parties in a relationship are feminists, it’s not that hard. I have learned just as much from him as he’s learned from me, and we are both just independent people who respect each other, making the other extra awesome. What more can you ask for in a significant other?
Image via Minjung Gang.