marking my first international women’s day should feel empowering – why does it feel complicated to celebrate that?
on 8th march 2022 i had no idea i was a girl.
i was a straight cis man who—nine days earlier—had voiced for the first time that i secretly wore women’s clothes. it wasn’t an easy thing to articulate. i tried to write down what ‘crossdressing’ was to me in a note on my phone so i could explain it clearly. i’d spent twenty-three years carefully compartmentalising and repressing it, so when i did finally say it aloud, it was a garbled wandering mess that raised more questions than it answered.
i wish i could read that note now, but i deleted it in the following months because it gave me the jeebs. from memory, it was coloured with overlapping spheres of shame: i wanted to minimise this ‘habit’ to simply a kink, but i felt a compulsion to acknowledge that it felt like something more. with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, it’s pretty clear that ‘something more’ was a glint of the gender incongruence that took me the following nine months to painfully unpack and learn to love.
this is my first international women’s day as a woman, and it still feels kind of alien to write that. before transitioning i felt proud to engage with international women’s day. i tried to educate myself on women’s issues, attended events and read books by female authors. i tried to listen, and i was conscious not to take up space that wasn’t mine to take up. i felt like i was a pretty good ally.
my ex-girlfriend (and now close friend and beautiful ally) abbey, was pretty instrumental in the formation of my feminism. when we were together, i was a man in my mid twenties; she challenged me hard and taught me that even men on the right side of the argument are part of the patriarchy. i spoke to abbey recently about how she saw my allyship. i was glad to hear she thought i was generally a good ally, showing a sincere interest and openness to learn. but she was also conscious to point out that most left-leaning men think they’re good allies. and while some of those men are out there combating toxic masculinity and fighting for equal paternity leave, there are many others whose allyship doesn’t stretch far beyond not being terrified of period blood.
a good ally doesn’t take centre stage, but that can easily lead to complacency. doing more than the bare minimum made me feel like i was making a difference. while i tried to uphold feminist values in male dominated spaces, and encouraged others to recognise their male privilege, i was hardly tearing the patriarchy down. you can’t just give up male privilege, it’s deeply entrenched.
that’s something that’s sitting with me this international women’s day. i’m a girl, but my residual male privilege follows me like a spectre. and like a spectre, it’s a nebulous accumulation that can’t easily be pinned down: it’s in tesco employees calling me ‘sir’, in still being treated as a man professionally, in not being talked over or talked down to, in not texting friends the time and location of every date i go on, in not keeping an eye on my drink, or worrying about harassment; but it’s also in my past, in every time i was a ‘natural leader’ not a ‘bossy boots’, it might be in every promotion i’ve had, and it’s certainly in the countless pieces of preferential treatment i will have unknowingly received.
in stories, when you make peace with the spectre it tends to evaporate, leaving everyone better for the experience with a lesson learned. there are parts of that privilege that will fade over time, but i’ll never fully shake the residual privilege of being raised a boy and living as a man. some of its benefits i’ll reap for the rest of my life, willingly or not. it’s hard to embrace international women’s day when a large part of me still feels inextricable from the system it fights to dismantle.
while researching this article, i remembered a reni eddo-lodge blog post called is feminism a dirty word. googling it, i came across a times article by almost exactly the same name: hadley freeman’s, when did feminism become a dirty word?. in 2013, eddo-lodge decried the fact feminism was unduly labelled as radically left. in 2022, freeman complains that “lgbt rights have firmly taken precedence over women’s rights,” stating figures about trans murder rates that can be undermined with a cursory google search. freeman is worried that feminism—or rather her trans-exclusionary brand of feminism—has become associated with the radical right. she’s wrong about a lot of things, but she might be right about that.
my, and probably many transfems’, interaction with international women’s day is tinged by that perceived link between feminism and terfism, and that has a hand in making me feel like it’s not my space to occupy—in making me feel like my existence somehow diverts from ‘real women’s issues’. but the plight of afghan women doesn’t divert from police violence against women in the uk. the us fight for abortion rights doesn’t divert from continued fgm pratices in kenya. these are all parts of the vast and multiply intersectional monolith that is the women’s movement. the alarming rise in violence against trans women is a women’s issue and it doesn’t divert from any other women’s issues.
moreover, the lgbtq+ movement has historically been associated with the women’s movement. in the uk, the gay liberation front and women’s liberation movement of the 1960s became deeply intertwined, both ultimately aiming to question patriarchal ideals, and over the past sixty years, their successors have fought hand-in-hand to achieve great strides in equality. today, trans people in the uk are fighting just to retain the rights that came as part of that effort.
international women’s day was easier as an ally because i could step away from issues like domestic violence, daily harassment, and the wage gap. my residual male privilege may still protect me from many women’s issues, but the patriarchy hurt me before i transitioned – from forcing me into performing masculinity to censoring my identity – and is hurting me now a few months into my transition: from not feeling safe walking home at night, to being heckled in the street. growing as a person is an iterative process, and as i grow into my womanhood, each iteration will be marked by less male privilege. a shrinking vestige of it might remain—and terfs will tell you that’s what matters—but it won’t protect me from much.
for now i’m still in no-woman’s-land. i think i don’t feel ‘woman enough’. some of that’s my own to work out, but some of it is a symptom of internalising trans-exclusionary narratives. i see that as a reason to fight for the fair representation of trans-womanhood in international women’s day—to prevent terfs commandeering what should be a day of inclusion and progression, just to rehash the same old shit about bathrooms and pronouns.