The Missing Stairs of Feminism
NOTE: Charlotte Clymer is a trans woman. This article was written several years before she transitioned.
Ugh. I’ve been working on this post on and off for weeks, but have been so disgusted and discouraged (and clinically depressed, as it happens), it’s been really challenging to get it finished and put it out there. It’s not the sort of thing I like having to write about, and I think some part of me was hoping that the person who sparked it would address the issues and somehow make it less necessary, but alas, that was wishful (one might even say “magical,”) thinking. Also, I recently learned that this whole thing came out a whole lot longer ago than I thought and some of us just missed it. See my apology toward the end.
Perhaps you’ve heard the analogy of the “missing stair.” It refers to a phenomenon wherein women warn one another about predators and other creeps in their social group because the social group is unwilling to oust said creep, makes excuses for him, or doesn’t even realize that the fact that he’s a creep is a problem to be solved. “But he’s a nice guy,” they’ll say, and list all of his good qualities, ignoring the fact that he’s at best an annoyance and at worst a danger to the women in the group.
In feminism, a missing stair can take many forms, as the author of the “missing stair” piece points out. Today I want to talk about one particular form: that of the faux feminist ally.
It recently (for some of us) came to light that a man who calls himself a feminist ally (and who many of us believed to be one) has behaved in ways and harbors attitudes that are decidedly un-ally-like. This is a person who, at first glance, seems like the perfect ally. He says all the right things, and he says them often. He just seems to “get it.” I mean, how many guys get it like this guy does? Wow. Everybody loves this guy.
Everyone, that is, except those who have already discovered that there’s more than one side to him. Or, perhaps more accurately, that there’s just one side, and it’s cleverly hidden under a fluffy sheep’s skin.
This guy is accused of silencing women on his once very popular (now defunct) feminist Facebook page as a matter of daily business. He has been accused of a number of things I’m not going to go into here, but suffice to say accusations abound. And the fact that there are so many accusations is an important piece of data. Perhaps emboldened by others speaking out, people seemed to flock to Twitter to share their stories, and many had screenshots to back them up. Put it all together, and the picture is not pretty.
And then there are the things he has admitted to: He has admitted to sending a very ugly message to a woman who criticized the way he ran his page. He has admitted that he used that page to meet women. He has freely—and one might even say proudly—admitted that his interest in feminism is at least partly based in “self-interest.” And I don’t mean in the way that feminism is good for everyone. No, this guy wants to be a professional feminist.
While dozens loudly criticized his behavior in a recent Twitter campaign to bring it to light, the dude in question ignored them and tweeted this quote:
“Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” ~Eleanor Roosevelt
Numerous people attempted to engage him and from what I can tell, he responded to very few (many were apparently blocked). His feminist Facebook page disappeared after folks who tried him there got the same treatment. The Twitter hashtag calling him out is still active after several weeks. So yeah, people have been talking.
But I believe when Mrs. Roosevelt said the words above, she was talking about gossip—e.g., whose car was parked in the neighbor’s driveway—and gossip is not what has been happening here. It is not “gossip” that this dude berated a woman and used his privilege to mock her for using the word “privilege.” It is not “gossip” that he called her an “idiot” for expressing her views on how he ran his page. It is not “gossip” that he has expressed a desire to make a “career” of being a prominent male feminist and that he estimates he’s about “80 percent” dedicated to the cause, with the other 20% being about him. These are all things he has said and admitted to, and reducing these criticisms to gossip indicates that he does not take them—or his critics—seriously in the least.
No, gossip is not what has been happening. Here’s what has: People have been talking about what it means that a self-styled male “feminist” does these things and continues to have a speaking spot at a major feminist rally, a platform in major publications, and a place in a movement that is meant to empower women and everyone else who isn’t a straight cis white man.
Some of us are disappointed and sickened that a man who said all the right things and really should have known better has privileged himself above women; that someone who talks so often about following women leaders thinks that what the feminist movement needs is a man who berates, verbally abuses, and silences women (and probably others), who disagree with him, insists on an apology from a Black woman who confronts his racism, thinks what we need is a man to lead us.
Some of us are angry that this person who ought to know better so often uses the word “vagina” (even as he verbally abused a woman who dared question him) in ways that ignore and even erase trans people from the equation; that someone who claims to be an expert on feminism can be so clueless about intersectionality.
Some of us are shaking our heads in disbelief and even embarrassment that we didn’t see through this facade sooner; that we didn’t take a clue from how much space this man takes up in feminist discussions—from how often he talks about himself and the good deeds he does on behalf of feminism; that we held him up as an example of what an ally looks like.
Some of us are disgusted that (though he vaguely laments his tone) this dude not only stands by the things he said to one woman he abused—which, for one thing, firmly privileged him above her in all things feminist—but fully admits that feminism is an ambition for him and that much of what he does (i.e., posting on social media) is to promote himself as a feminist “leader.”
Some are relieved that a thing they’ve known for some time is finally coming to light; that the experiences they’ve been trying to talk about for months or even years are finally validated by public disclosure of this harmful behavior.
Some of us are wondering how we can—how we should—help prevent others from falling prey to a “feminist leader” who believes it’s ok to privilege himself above women and verbally abuse them when he thinks they’re wrong. We’re wondering if the right thing to do is to name names, join in the pile-on, and drum this guy out of feminism before he can do more harm, or to quietly remind people that allies who promote themselves* as allies seldom are and thereby avoid making targets of ourselves. Because make no mistake, not only is this dude willing to verbally abuse and shame people who disagree, this “ally” has allies who have made it their business to chime in and “explain” to women who speak out about this that they are everything that is wrong with feminism. And in an ironic twist, the MRAs have joined in to support this dude and to gleefully accuse us of eating our own. And frankly? Most of us get enough of their crap on a daily basis.
Some of us are developing a better understanding of why some of our sisters have been so suspicious of men who claim to be feminists.
I have long believed that men not only can but should identify as feminists or at least feminist allies, because I believe that men have to be part of tearing down the systems that benefit them and oppress everyone else or it just won’t happen. But a man who strives to become a professional feminist is taking the concept of dominating feminist spaces to a whole new level. Men who use the feminist movement to further their own ambitions do so at our expense, which means that instead of helping us to tear down these oppressive systems, they are using feminism to benefit from them, which is pretty fucking sick if you think about it.
And men who set out to use feminism as a launchpad for, say, a talk show career ignore the fact that (as others have said before me) for us, feminism is not an ambition. It is our lives. It’s not something we do to promote ourselves—it’s what we do in response to oppression. I don’t believe that men who strive to become “professional feminists” are in it for the right reasons—not to any degree that makes a difference. And quite frankly, it is my firm belief that if anyone gets paid to do feminism, it should absolutely not be a straight cis white man. Period. (Update: Clymer has announced that he is gender non-conforming.)
That’s one big difference between guys like this and real feminist allies. Good allies understand that it’s not appropriate for men to presume to lead the movement. They get that it’s not their place to teach women about feminism any more than it would be a straight person’s place to teach gay people about LGBT issues. (What might be more appropriate would be for men to teach other men about feminism, assuming they actually know what they’re talking about and won’t do more harm than good, like this guy would.) Good male allies understand that their place is at the back of the room. Men who want to be allies need to study the behavior of failed allies and learn how not to be That Guy. Because That Guy is not only not an ally, he has the potential to do harm to our movement from within, not least by silencing people who already have a hard enough time being heard.
That Guy, these guys—men who use feminism for their own gains and do harm in the process—are the “missing stairs” of feminism. They look perfectly safe (in fact, they can look so safe that they’re practically begging you to step on them) but they will break your ankle just the same. And it will hurt, if only because you trusted them and they turned out to be just like every other entitled straight white dude on the planet.
I think we do have a duty to warn one another about these missing stairs. And then we have to work to fix the staircase. We have to raise up the voices of the marginalized and privilege them above these men and we have to deny these men access to leadership positions. Because for us, this isn’t a thing we do to make a name for ourselves. It’s what we do to live an authentic life and make our world better for our sisters and daughters and for boys and men and for everyone everywhere on the gender spectrum.
And yes, talking about this means talking about people who place themselves in our spaces.
For my own part, and to get around to the real reason I felt like I needed to write about this, I want to apologize for every instance in which I touted That Guy as a feminist ally, be it a Follow Friday on Twitter or a gushing share of a pithy feminist post on my Facebook page or the inclusion of his photo on my blog as an example of how men can do good in feminism. In doing these things, I helped give him credibility—I helped him perpetuate this image of himself as the perfect male feminist when what he turned out to be is the perfect faux ally.
Here are a few things I learned from this experience. It all seems so clear to me now.
- When a straight, white man takes up more space in feminist conversations than most women, he may be in it for the wrong reasons.
- When 99% of his Facebook posts are about the Good Feminist Deeds he did today, he may be in it for the wrong reasons.
- When he is called out on bad behavior toward women and ignores his critics (many of whom are the very women making the accusations), posting passive-aggressive quotes instead of responding to criticism, he may be in it for the wrong reasons.
And from my own personal experience (because friends have urged me to share), when an “ally” solicits donations to his feminist charity event in return for pluggin your blog on his feminist network, then never seems to get around to it despite multiple promises, you might be tempted to let him off the hook because “he’s such a good guy; he does so much good” and “he must be so overwhelmed, poor bunny,” but when you find out that this behavior is part of a larger pattern of promoting himself as a great ally but actually being an awful one, you realize that you’ve been had** and…wait for it…he may be in it for the wrong reasons.
Now, because I held him up as an example of a good ally on more than one occasion and he turned out to be a missing stair (and because I don’t think I could look myself in the mirror if I didn’t), I’m going to say the thing that needs to be said out loud:
Charles Clymer can call himself a feminist if he wants to, but I do not believe he is an ally to feminism, and I’m sorry I ever helped promote him as such. In fact, I believe that he displays the same behaviors and attitudes of some of the worst MRA fuckwads who show up here and on my social media feeds to tell me I’m doing feminism wrong, except he’s way more dangerous because he does so in the name of feminism and at the expense of the people he claims to uplift and empower. He has expressed a wish that people would have come to him personally about all this, but he blocked those people. Also, if you have a strong stomach, you can see what happens to women who challenge Charles and I highly recommend you check out the discussion on Twitter for additional data. As for me, I sincerely hope he finds a different career aspiration for the sake of all the people who daily continue to be taken in by his words, knowing nothing of his bad behavior or his continued unwillingness to address it in any meaningful way. And if he really wants to be a feminist ally and not part of the problem, I hope he goes back to feminism school and also how not to be a complete jackass school.
I further apologize to anyone upset by this news (however, if you’re angry that I named names, I don’t know what to tell you—I’m doing what I think is right). For me, finding out about this felt like getting punched in the gut. I felt (still feel) sick and betrayed and sad and angry because not only did I trust this guy, I told other people they should trust him (again, sorry), and his actions show that he is not worthy of that trust. Ultimately, I hope my writing this helps you avoid not just this particular faux feminist ally but also others still out there saying all the right things while doing all the wrong ones behind the scenes. I know I will be less trusting in the future (I already am), and that’s sad, but it’s a difficult thing we’re doing and we have to protect ourselves. There’s an old saying about friends and enemas that applies here.
I guess I’ll just leave it at that.
*In fact, one big takeaway for me from #YourSlipIsShowing (a recent campaign launched by Black women to out fake “feminist” Twitter accounts) was the louder and more often it quacks, the less likely it is to be a duck.
**I don’t regret my donation in the slightest, as it went toward providing abortion access (I had already donated once before he made the promo offer). Also, I don’t think he set out to defraud me, just that he was far too busy promoting himself as a great feminist ally (and silencing women who disagree) to actually be one even in such a small way as this.
Note: I have made some post-publication tweaks for clarity and inclusivity.
Update #1: (9/26/14): The National Women’s Political Caucus has announced that they will present Charles Clymer with their “Good Guy Award” at their EMMA awards ceremony in October. I have emailed them to explain why this is not a good idea. Please consider doing the same. [Update to update: Victory!]
- When Bad Allies Get “Good Guy” Awards (Make Me a Sammich)
- So You Want to Be a Male Feminist? Maybe Don’t. (NY Mag)
- When we call bad guys good (Feministing)
- Clyming the Walls of Feminism: A Critical Look at the Feminist Problem Part I (parentwin)
- Men and Feminism (The Belle Jar)
- Blaming and Disbelieving Victims: Charles Clymer’s Toxic Feminism (Evil Feminist from Space)
- More than the Message (Model View Culture)
- Notes on Charles Clymer (theblackunic0rn)
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