A few weeks back my friend Tara and I were planning to attend an artist talk at a local gallery. Shortly before we were supposed to meet Tara was commandeered by a friend to babysit for the afternoon and so, when we connected at Ideal Coffee, she had a nine-year-old and a two-year-old in tow.
After a moment of debate we decided to make good on our plans and bring our expanded family along with us. After all, exposing kids to art can expand their minds and make them into better people, right?
Shortly after we arrived in the dingy basement at Xpace the two-year-old fell peacefully asleep, though the nine-year-old remained bored and restless. Much of the talk was focused on the artist’s experiences as a teenager; coming out as queer, first loves, first sexual experiences and the like. She also made a point of talking about the first feminist she’d ever met; the mother of a friend she had a crush on.
Though he’d been mostly disinterested up until this point, the nine-year old suddenly perked up and tapped me on the shoulder. “Hey, Chris,” he whispered. “What’s a feminist?”
At this point two things went through my mind. The first was, “Wow! What an incredible opportunity I have to explain to this kid what feminism means.” And the second thing was, “How the fuck do I explain a complex and frequently conflicted social and political movement that’s been going on for more than 100 years in terms he can reasonably understand?”
My first notions of feminism came during my early high school years in the 1990s. An openly gay and aggressively effeminate teenage boy, I was rejected and maligned by pretty much everyone at school. Picked on, harassed and beaten-up on a regular basis I was lonely, isolated and pretty fucking depressed.
Not surprisingly the first friends I had were similar social outcasts. We had a group of “tough girls” at our school who eschewed acceptable social conventions in every way. They smoked, drank and took drugs. They had tattoos and piercings and shopped at Army Surplus instead of Cotton Ginny. Most importantly perhaps, they fought.
Standing in the smoking section at the back of our school one day, a group of jocks decided to start chucking apples at me. My usual impulse in these situations had always been to ignore it; wash off whatever dirt/food/garbage people threw at me in the bathroom before class and just accept that this was an occupational hazard of attending a suburban high school.
One of the tough girls walked up to me. Christine (as I later learned was her name) was a slight 5-foot 6-inches with long Manic Panic red hair and a lip ring. “Are you gonna just let them do that?” she asked.
“Uh, I dunno. I guess.”
She stomped the remaining half of her Players Light into the ground with her combat boot and walked up to the largest of the jocks. Standing on her toes to get right in his face, she said in a voice loud enough for everyone in the yard to hear, “You better leave that guy alone or you’re gonna have to deal with me!”
The guy and his friends just laughed, admittedly a logical response to being threatened by this tiny girl. This made Christine mad. She reached into her bag and pulled out a hunting knife, no doubt purchased at the same army surplus store where she bought camouflage pants. She grabbed his shirt and stuck the knife right up to his face. “If you ever fuck with that guy again I’m gonna fucking cut you open!” she yelled.
The jock pulled back. “Okay. Chill out,” he said, even though we could all see he was nervous.
She let him go, spitting on the ground as she walked back toward me. “Fucking pussy!” she said, under her breath. She grabbed my arm and pulled me toward her group of friends who are all laughing. “You’re with us now,” she said. “Anybody fucks with you and we’ll take care of them. Even a dumb jock knows better than to fuck with a feminist.”
Over the next few months Christine and her friends introduced me to secondhand shopping and LSD, Babes in Toyland and L7. They taught me that feminism meant fighting against oppression and standing up for yourself because the world is full of straight white men who have no problem tearing you down at any opportunity. They told me I was worth something, even though the rest of the world told me different, and that the right to exist in the world without getting harassed was worth fighting for.
My definition of feminism has grown and changed in the years since then though I think my first experiences with this group of young women still heavily shape my understanding of the movement. I see feminism first and foremost as a fight against injustice and for equality; a fight I am deeply connected to as a gay man, since homophobia is so deeply rooted in misogyny.
Back at the art show I’m still thinking about how to answer this kid’s question. “Well,” I say after a long pause. “A feminist is a person who believes that men and women are equal and should have the same rights.” “Oh. Okay,” he says, and goes back to picking at his Nikes.
I’ve had moments since this day when I’ve felt that the definition I gave him is insufficient; that he might simply think at his age that everyone believes that men and women are equal and that feminism doesn’t represent a point of view that’s different from a large portion of society. But I realized that his understanding will inevitably grow over time and maybe someday he’ll meet some tough girls with funny-coloured hair who can fill in the gaps for him that I left out.