In Western society, we love binaries. Whether we’re talking about gender (man/woman), sexuality (straight/gay), race (white/black), or even pets (dog/cat), we love being able to sort things as either one thing or the other with no in-between. It makes everything simpler. If you aren’t one thing, then you’re the other, and that’s that. Easy. However, this kind of thinking provides no room in the middle for those who don’t quite fit into one category or the other. As a result, anything from confusion to derision can be directed at someone who occupies this middle space.
Consider bisexuality. (After all, last week was Bisexuality Awareness Week.) For a variety of reasons (including the sexuality binary mentioned above), a number of negative stereotypes exist about bisexual people. Those who identify as bisexual are often judged by others as being straight people who are “just experimenting”—the assumption being that they will give up this sexually-deviant behavior and come back to the “right” side (heterosexuality). This is especially true for bisexual women, who are often fetishized by straight men for their attraction to women, and not because of sexual equality. Being attracted to both men and women is seen by some as being “greedy” and sexually promiscuous as well as deviant. Similarly, according to these types of stereotypes, a person who identifies as bisexual is “actually gay” and won’t (or can’t) admit it. Many in our society with this heteronormative gaze apply this stereotype to bisexual men. All of these stereotypes paint bisexuality as deviant and characterize the bisexual as being “unable to choose” who they are attracted to.
When someone identifies as bisexual and they are dating someone of the opposite gender, they may be told or made to feel that they aren’t “queer enough” to be part of the LGBTQI movement. Being in this kind of relationship may also lead to accusations of denying their sexual orientation or cause the bisexual person to feel that they are “repressing” any homosexual leanings they may have. It can be difficult to express one’s attraction to more than one gender when in a monogamous relationship; many bisexuals may feel compelled to “prove” themselves in LGBTQI groups or gatherings. As such, some people may choose not to identify as bisexual to avoid the whole discussion, thinking it easier to just identify as straight or gay.
All of these stereotypes and negative perceptions result in something I call the Schrodinger’s Closet, a derivation of “Schrodinger’s Cat” that refers to a mind experiment devised by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger in 1935. The hypothetical experiment involved placing a cat in a sealed box with a vial of poison. The part of the experiment that matters for our purposes here is that, as long as the box remains sealed, the cat is both alive and dead. (For a more thorough explanation of the Schrodinger’s Cat experiment, see the Telegraph article below.) Even someone who has never taken a physics class can tell you that it is impossible for a cat to be alive and dead at the same time.
Let’s do another thought experiment. Imagine a bisexual person. The gender of this person is not relevant, so I’ll use a gender-neutral name and pronouns. Let’s call them Sam. Sam is not in a relationship. As such, Sam is both gay and straight, in a sense. (That is, they are attracted both to people of the same gender and of the opposite gender.) However, if we apply society’s sexuality binary, Sam should not exist. It is not possible to be both gay and straight: you are either one or the other. In the same way that we want to know if Schrodinger’s cat is alive or dead, we, as a society, want to know if Sam is gay or straight. We are not willing to accept that they are attracted to people of both genders. Thus, as a society, we socially impose Schrodinger’s Closet and sort people as either gay or straight, depending on what type of relationship they are in or what gender they are more attracted to.
Several close friends who identify as bisexual have expressed feelings of frustration with these negative stereotypes and perceptions. They have also found Schrodinger’s Closet frustrating: if they are in a “straight” relationship, even if they feel happy and satisfied with their partner, they sometimes feel that they aren’t “queer enough” or that they “don’t count” as a member of the LGBTQI population. At the same time, if they were to date someone whose gender identity matches their own, they fear being ostracized or questioned from family or other friends who might “think they’re gay now.” Schrodinger’s Closet can also be inherently frustrating when in a monogamous relationship, since the bisexual person may feel that they can’t fully express their sexuality. As established, much of the negative perceptions around bisexuality come from our society’s inability to understand (or try to understand) anything that doesn’t fit within our predetermined binaries. Schrodinger’s Closet is a result of that. It’s no wonder that, according to a 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center, only twenty-eight percent of bisexuals have “come out” to important people in their lives. By contrast, seventy-seven percent of gay men and seventy-eight percent of lesbian women have come out.
Interestingly, though, an increasing number of millennials—up to thirty percent according to a poll in 2011 by YouGov—identify as bisexual or not exclusively attracted to one gender. The friends I mentioned earlier are all millennials, and among people my age, being or knowing someone who identifies as bisexual is a pretty common thing. As attitudes about gender and sexuality change, perhaps more and more people will find themselves able to be who they are without fear of being characterized as a deviant or a fake. Bisexuals are only one group of people who are marginalized because they occupy the middle space between the binary. Society imposes a number of closets on people who cross gender, sexual, or racial binaries. We must take strides to remove the hinges from Schrodinger’s Closet rather than locking people inside of it.
What does it mean to be a feminist? It’s a question you’ve likely heard before, perhaps several times. Perhaps you’ve even asked it yourself. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines feminism as “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” A feminist, then, would be someone who believes in this theory. Simple enough, right?
And yet, feminism is not (and has never been) quite that simple.
The word “feminist” brings to mind a whole host of images. Depending on your background and your own personal beliefs, you may think of a feminist as an unshaven, overweight woman waving a protest sign in your face, or women wearing pink hats at the Women’s March on Washington, or a “man-hating lesbian,” or historical figures like Eleanor Roosevelt and Virginia Woolf, or celebrity activists like Beyoncé and Emma Watson. Feminist has always been a loaded term, a term that even many advocates for women’s rights shy away from.
The conflict here stems from a discrepancy between being a feminist and doing feminism. Being a feminist is anyone who supports the aforementioned definition of feminism given by Merriam-Webster’s. Subscribing to this belief system is all one needs to be a feminist. Doing feminism, as the name implies, is about action. To do feminism refers to the actions you take on a regular basis to promote and move toward equality for all people, regardless of gender identification. For example, what do you say to others in order to promote the feminist cause? What issues do you protest with regard to gender equality? Who and what do you read? Do you approach discussions with others about oppression from a feminist standpoint? Do you consume your media consciously, expressing criticism of discriminatory attitudes and premises? How each of us answers these questions determines what our personal picture of feminism looks like.
During the 1960s, radical and liberal feminists clashed over how best to achieve their goals of equality. Radical feminists called for a total upheaval of the current sociopolitical structure to eradicate the patriarchy while liberal feminists worked within the already-existing confines of patriarchy to pass legislation like the Equal Rights Amendment. Radical feminists thought that liberal feminists were too lenient on patriarchy while liberal feminists thought radical feminists were too severe on patriarchy. One issue that these two groups clashed over was childcare. While liberal feminists often argued that childcare needed to be more affordable for working mothers, radical feminists argued that patriarchy unfairly burdened women (and not men) with having to choose between child-rearing and a professional career. (There was a short-lived campaign for housewives to be paid for taking care of the domestic sphere, but it was unfortunately unsuccessful.) Although, at the end of the day, the two camps still believed in equal rights for men and women, how they chose to do feminism was what made them different and oftentimes caused conflict.
We can still see these kinds of conflicts in twenty-first century feminism. The increasing visibility of people who identify as transgender, nonbinary, or gender nonconforming have brought to light the kind of oppression they face because of their gender identities. Not only do individuals who identify as transgender and nonbinary face discrimination in spaces like public bathrooms, but they also face oppression in the workplace, with “near universal” harassment and double the national unemployment rate, according to the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey. However, not everyone believes that transgender and nonbinary people should be included in their version of feminism. This brings to mind a similar debate from the 1960s regarding who should and should not be included in the feminist movement. Some lesbians argued that straight women, by having romantic and sexual relationships with men, were simply perpetuating the patriarchy. One could not be in a truly equal relationship with a man because men were always part of the patriarchy and would always seek to dominate women.
To give another modern-day example, many feminists have taken to the Internet as a form of protest and expression. The Internet has proved a valuable tool for many to spread awareness of feminist issues through more easily-digestible forms (like videos, blog posts, and even Tweets). On the flip side, there are those that argue that this isn’t “really” feminism: simply sharing videos and blog posts on one’s social networking sites does not constitute activism. Is “Internet activism” just one way of doing feminism, or does it fail to do enough for the cause?
In my opinion, this policing of what is and is not feminism and who is and isn’t a feminist can really slow progress. In the fight for equality, excluding others who have been discriminated against runs counter to the feminist message of equality for all. Feminism is about dismantling existing patriarchal power structures so that everyone has equal opportunities and can live their lives freely without fear of being repressed or silenced. Regardless of how each of us choose to do feminism, we should seek to include as many in our fight as possible.
The title of this column (“We Are No Birds”) is taken from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, a classic work of literature and one of my personal favorite books. Rochester, the main love interest, has committed a crime that the morally upright protagonist, Jane, doesn’t think she can forgive. When Rochester jokes that Jane is like a bird tearing out its feathers by trying to get away from him, Jane exclaims: “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” I’ve adapted the quote and made it plural in the hopes that it will speak to a multitude of issues. Similarly, I am hoping this column can speak to many experiences in being and doing feminism, whatever they may look like. However we identify, whoever we are, we are not birds.
Sources (in order by mention):
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Edited by Richard J. Dunn, W. W. Norton and Company, 1987
Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988-2000
by Lucille Clifton
Lucille Clifton is a big inspiration for my poetry. As a former professor at my alma mater, St. Mary’s College of Maryland, I’ve heard a lot about Lucille Clifton these past four years, and for good reason. I admire her ability to create evocative images out of so few and simple words. In this collection are poems on femininity, race, aging, illness, death, and a host of other topics. I tore through this book much faster than I was expecting because of how closely I connected with Clifton’s voice. Her honesty and straightforwardness in her work is truly stunning. The poems read so easily and smoothly with their simplistic diction, yet they are so complex when it comes to theme and message. I think her poems are a wonderful read, even if you aren’t usually a poetry person and even if you don’t happen to be sitting by the water, the breeze tickling the pages.
Nicole Hylton is a writer-of-all-trades from Southern Maryland. She writes poetry, short stories, and has completed two novellas, Internet Official and Dropping Her Gloves. Her work has appeared in Aethlon and Avatar. She holds a B.A. in English from St. Mary’s College of Maryland, minor in Sociology & Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies.
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The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review was founded in 2010 as an online and print literary and arts journal. We take our title from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and include the full archives of our predecessor Moon Milk Review. Our aesthetic is eclectic, literary mainstream to experimental. We appreciate fusion forms including magical realist, surrealist, meta- realist and realist works with an offbeat spin. We value character-focused storytelling and language and welcome both edge and mainstream with punch aesthetics. We like humor that explores the gritty realities of world and human experiences. Our issues include original content from both emerging and established writers, poets, artists and comedians such as authors, Rick Moody, Cris Mazza, Steve Almond, Stephen Dixon, poets, Moira Egan and David Wagoner and actor/comedian, Zach Galifianakis.
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