Nida Mollison spoke at our February Story-Share event at The Front. Below is a transcript of her talk.
In the approach to the theme of tonight, my brain has been echoing – how doesn’t my queer identity intersect with feminism?
I’d like to tell the story of my queer-feminist identity as one of invisibility and recognition. As I unpacked my personal, political and theoretical experiences I find the repeating moment to be the tension between a frustration with marginalisation as a queer woman, and the ways I may find refuge and empowerment in and through that identity.
Stories of social justice, as movements and for individuals are often recounted as linear. The Coming Out Story, or the waves of feminism washing over to reveal a changing society. Yet there is a real chicken-egg of my claiming of feminist politics and a queer identity. I often consider the paradigm break of coming out as a woman who is attracted to women as something that forced me to seek out a language to express what was socially constructed, and discrimination I felt, but was for so long unable to communicate – something familiar I expect to a lot of the women, and other people in the room. My feminist and queer politics were entangled from what I remember as my first profound moment of recognition.
When my college sociology teacher, who I thought the world of, responded to my angst in a class discussion by hearing me, looking at me through his gaze as a straight, white, middle class, cisgender, able-bodied… man, and said ‘Wow, being both gay and a woman, that really must suck’. And he meant it. And he made no claim to it. And I felt so seen.
Must it suck? It did suck. It often does suck. I’m grateful that it sucks a lot less for me than a huge amount of others.
I was raised by two feminist parents. My mother, piping in often as I grew up ‘I was a feminist in the 70’s, you know, when it was all happening’. I respect her dearly. She actively discouraged me from shaving my legs when peer pressure kicked in. My dad, he raised my brother and I as equals. Yet articulating my queer feminism was not easy.
I remember my teenage self boldly pronouncing to my parents that –this– my erupting, all consuming, daily struggle, was less of a sexual-identity crisis than a gender-identity crisis. I cut off most of my hair in a wrestle with this, and -was- more often recognised as queer. I had to distance myself from femininity to be seen as someone who would live outside of a heterosexual paradigm. I had to be less feminine to be more feminist. I hated the haircut.
The intersection of queerness and feminism is not a new idea. Lesbian and gay rights are historically intertwined with feminism. Yet the branch of lesbian-separatist feminism my mum was troubled by does not appeal to me either. The second wave feminists who upheld the idea that all heterosexual dynamics were inherently problematic, and even suggested the identity of a ‘political-lesbian’, following that you can and should align your sexual preference with these beliefs. My queer politics oppose this energy of solidification, or separation of men and women as somehow essentially, unchangeably different.
Rather than being ‘woman-identified’, like the lesbian-feminists of the past are narrated, my queerness emerged and emerges as a belief in the fluidity of attraction and the embodiment of gender and sexuality. I don’t strongly invest in categories of the gay and straight either.
I’m still struck by anger and invisibility I felt, remembering a male classmate who overheard a discussion about my identity I was having with a friend, and felt it was his place to interject ‘So, are you bisexual for the attention?’.
I’ve never really identified that way outside of that one conversation I think, but in the moment I was able to feel a feminist-queer rage at the way in which my female body or sexuality was assumed to be used for ‘attention’. The way I could be seen only to exist in the context of other people’s interest. Moments like this go to show that the work feminism has done and continues to do will always be a part of my politics, and experience. While the invisibility of bisexuality is often cast as a queer issue, feeling invisible as a feminine queer woman is, to me, a distinctly queer and a feminist experience.
When people suggest that they do not read me as queer or find it hard to believe I’m queer because of my gender presentation, they are making assumptions based on the gender roles that feminism critiques. Femininity is ascribed that passivity in heterosexual contexts, women’s sexualities are often not granted space or respected when they are asserted. They’re especially not seen as able to operate away from men altogether.
When I was waiting alone in the civic bus interchange, and a man on a bike rode up close to me three times before stopping and asking me if I would have coffee with him, and I was intimidated to the point where I felt the polite statement that I was not interested would not be enough to end the conversation, so I said ‘sorry, I have a boyfriend’. Which was not true. But women’s sexuality is defined by, legitimated by, their relationship to a man’s sexuality. I did, in fact, have a girlfriend at the time. And a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.
Things did change for me as I got older. They often do. The way I nerd out on feminist and queer theory, now, in university, has a lot to do with the tensions of recognition. I find that to enter a theorists’ conceptual, phenomenal world in writing can be a refuge. A refuge from the lived experience and frustration of being harassed, or objectified. Mis-recognised, invisible. A refuge from debates about the importance of affirmative action or autonomous spaces for women and queer identified people.
But the fact that I feel recognised and entirely authentic in a university gender studies classroom is not a symptom of some kind of broad, systematic change to gender roles and heterosexual paradigms as is the familiar request of queer and feminist groups. The way I move through the world as a queer woman has changed, but the recognition I pined and cut my hair for (over and over) as a younger person is not anymore available with the authority of a degree.
For years now when a stranger has asked me what I study, I have left gender a mere mumble after the more ‘masculinist’ major of sociology, or even anthropology minor. I spend hours pouring myself into and out of texts that queer X and Y structures that are taken for granted but I don’t know how to defend this, one of my deepest passions. Even my occasional armpit hair in the context of my women’s football team sometimes makes me nervous. It’s a difficult conversation…
There is this concept of the ‘feminist killjoy’. I particularly connected with it reading a queer theorist Sara Ahmed. I become able to see myself in this figure, and to recognize the invisibility I felt as a queer woman as part of being a stranger to the way I was told to be a woman.
But it also helped me to consider what those feelings of invisibility and discomfort can do, to build new ways of thinking about identity and what it means to be legible or to be invisible to the people around you. The embodiment of my identity remains difficult. I don’t want to live in a near-constant state of feminist or queer anger at mis-recognition. My armpit hair grows on and comes off. Who am I?
But, to answer the original question, of how queer and feminist can intersect, I would say that I understand being a feminist, being an empowered woman, in opposition to what I perceive as a casting of femininity as nothing but a lack of masculinity, is to claim queerness. For me, this is in part instinctive, and it is also difficult. And I hope these kind of stories can help to bring two, often separate discussions, of queerness and feminism, together.
Image: Eun Ju Kim-Baker
Nida Mollison is a student of gender both at and away from the ANU. She is an active local queer, and convenes Canberra’s own queer women’s radio program, Friday Night Lip Service. Her research interests include queer theory and intersectional approaches to identity. Her activist dreams involve animal liberation and radical hairstyles.