Male identified did not used to mean “identifying as a male.” It did not used to mean ftm. It used to mean any woman who was watching herself through an internalized male gaze and performing for it; a woman who was contorting herself to conform to male expectations; a woman who was assimilated into malestream culture and did not have a sense of herself outside of being in relation to men. In other words, a woman with a raging case of internalized misogyny. A woman who will see the humanity in a man before recognizing any in her sisters or in herself. Sometimes, it specifically meant a woman who played men’s games by their own rules for her own individual advantage; perhaps in a nontraditional “power” career.
This woman was considered an undesirable element in women’s communities because she could not be counted on to act in her own interests, let alone be in any kind of solidarity with other women. As I understand it, this concept was both extremely useful and the basis for divisive, damaging purity politics. Every woman has internalized misogyny. We might wear it differently and manage it differently. We can try to unpack it, address it, and mitigate it; or, conversely, we can just act it out and call it an “empowered choice”—but nobody’s exempt and nobody’s pure.
When the term was originally coined, women who wore makeup and heels, for example, were considered “male identified.” One the one hand, this reflected an important shared critique of disfiguring “beauty” practices such as wearing “shoes” not shaped for human anatomy and spreading chemicals onto one’s sense organs. As a group, lesbian feminists were refusing to participate in their own subjugation. On the other hand, these markers of submission are not something any woman does outside the context of a devil’s bargain—regardless of how much she may tell herself otherwise.
To locate the source of the problem in other women is to ignore the real root; to assume that a woman lacks the “right” consciousness because of the strategy she’s employed to navigate a hostile world is not a deep enough recognition.
“Male identification” now, in the Age of Identity, primarily means something far more literal. While there are still plenty of women, including lesbians, maintaining the previous version—the kind that helps you pass for straight, and signals to men that you accept their rules—this kind is not called “male identification” anymore. Now it may be called “empowerment,” “femme,” or “I’m just me;” it may be called “cis” and falsely naturalized as the essence of womanhood—but it is never recognized as male identification. This is important—the whole project fails if the traditional kind of “male identification” is recognized as such. Instead, that truth is obfuscated whenever it’s posited as an axis of oppression (“femmephobia”) that supposedly cuts across all sex/gender positions. How better to alienate a woman from herself than to re-frame her oppression to obfuscate the agent, aligning her with the likes of arch-MRA (“men’s rights advocate”)/mtf Julia Serrano, rather than with other women.
Male identified is now used to mean a literal attempt to assume the social position of a male and, often, to modify one’s body to be either as male-like as possible or as “queer” as possible—where “queer” necessarily implies unfemale. This male-identified woman is considered a very desirable element in “queer” social scenes, but in an objectified way. She (usually called “he”) doesn’t wear makeup and heels—unless she’s sufficiently bodily-modified so as to render this a facsimile of “queer male” performance. If she’s striving to be male-like, and partners with same, they call themselves “faggots.” She may call herself genderqueer, a boi, “masculine of center,” or any number of the rapidly-proliferating terms meaning “anything but female.” This is not about women rejecting male-defined femininity (which was the project of the women who coined the original term “male identified”); instead, it is about striving for male-defined masculinity. In its way, it is just as put on, artificial, and ultimately damaging as its inverse.
There is no “masculine of center” in a patriarchy—masculine means pertaining to males, and males are the center of dominant culture—and also, in one way or another, the center of any women’s subculture that does not consciously and actively resist this paradigm.
Having lost the “sex wars” and otherwise been beaten down by the backlash, lesbian feminists no longer inform the group values of what used to be the women’s/lesbian community. There is no women’s movement now, and there hasn’t been one in my lifetime. Women have been moving; some never stopped, and some younger ones began, mostly on their own, feeling their way to the same truths as their predecessors. But it’s a fringe, and it’s not leading the general trend.
The cutting edge of the new “women’s” community is made up of male-identified women of all kinds, who ultimately serve and boost male agendas including the erasure of lesbian into “queer;” the rise of “gender identity” derails over sex-based analysis; the normalizing and defense of porn; the practice of sadomasochism; the framing of so-called “sex work” as an empowered choice to the detriment of most women who have no choice to speak of; and the idea that feminism means adopting MRA talking points like “but women rape, too.”
Who are these “male-identified” women who have taken over? They are us. Like I said, nobody’s pure. It is nearly impossible to resist aligning with male power for survival, and it is impossible to resist alone. At the moment, most of us are more or less alone, as far as I can tell.
It’s not about who is doing it; you might as well ask which of us never internalized any misogyny. We are all doing it in some way, to some degree. If we can’t acknowledge this, we can’t change it. Even if you (very unpopularly) managed to maintain the purest feminist ideals on every matter, you might use them as a club with which to beat other women who you see as falling short; you might locate the source of internalized misogyny in other women, rather than recognizing with compassion or understanding the push they are reacting to; you might decide that other women are your oppressor on the basis of them negotiating their internalized misogyny in a different way than you do—and then, even with “pure” politics, you would be male-identified. The purity concept itself, that self-aggrandizement that holds you apart from others—is only another form of male-identification. We have to see each other.
But very few feminists even strive for any such ideals, however imperfectly, these days. I-ndividual choice and moral minimalism are the order of the day; perhaps in reaction to the purity politics of the previous era, we have swung entirely in the other direction. It is heresy to question an individual woman’s choices from a community-impact perspective; it is an offense (sometimes punishable by exile) to suggest considering the needs of the group above or even alongside those of the individual—and, in fact, it is increasingly rare to even think of lesbians per se as a group at all. Where “community” is invoked, it’s in the context of an ever-broadening alphabet-soup coalition, wherein the “L” supposedly represents a relative degree of privilege and power and must therefore take a deferential posture. An attitude of submission, in sacrifice to the “greater” (read: male) good. Thus our “community” is eaten away from both sides; from a belonging contingent on male-defined “knowing our place”—to an overwhelming individualism within the “queer” versions of what were once lesbian spaces.
From this position, too many of us believe that our only course of action is to choose which variety of male-identification we want to commit ourselves to. To choose each other seems impossible.
If lesbians won’t stand up to this garbage, who is going to? If lesbians are trading feminism for male-identification, what hope can there be?
Male-identification keeps us alien from ourselves, separate from each other, and hooked into male carrots-and-sticks instead. This is not what satisfies a lesbian. This is not what we are made for.
What lesbian can ignore the call of deep recognition with another woman?
We have to give ourselves to each other. We have to stop being afraid of the truth of ourselves. And it is irresistibly satisfying to love ourselves and each other in this way.
So I have hope for our lesbian future; hope that lesbian feminists and other women-identified- women can lead the way to a livable world for us all. If someone like me, who was once male-identified in the most literal sense, can come through it and be changed such that I can never again be duped—then it is possible to turn this tide. Thousands upon thousands of women acting against themselves and the larger group interest feel a dissonance in their gut. They may try to kill it, but the more clearly we say what we know—without making any other woman into The Enemy—the harder it is to ignore.