When Construction and Feminism Meet Somewhere In Between

Dear James,

I often think of us as quite different.

When I was losing sleep about passing high-school AP exams and getting a top score on the SAT, you were writing songs on your guitar and riding your BMX bike at the skate park. I keep a collection of books —  bell hooks, Alice Walker, Cornel West, Adrienne Rich–, while you keep a collection of vinyl –Tom Waits, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, The Velvet Underground. I drink red wine. You chew tobacco.

Your appearance is the epitome of straight masculinity–your body muscled, not because you have spent a day in the gym, but because five days a week you swing hammers, dig ditches, and set housing foundations. If I did not know you and were to pass you on the street, I would most likely create a deep chasm of separateness between us.

You don’t identify as a feminist and we don’t use the same language. You aren’t familiar with words like heteronormativity, agency, intersectionality, transnationalism. You’ve never heard of Simone de Beauvoir, Sojourner Truth, Audre Lorde, or Gloria Stienem, and you don’t own any shirts exclaiming “This is What a Feminist Looks LIke.” But for me, you don’t need any of this. I already see it– your feminism– however tacit it may be, underpinning all your ordinary and audacious acts of openness, friendship, and love.

I see it when your girlfriend, a 22 year-old nurse, calls you in tears, fearful she might not succeed in her new job. You softly remind her, “Hanna, you are OK. You are amazing. Starting something new is always challenging at first.”

I see it when you show me pictures of you with your girlfriend’s gay father and his boyfriend in the Castro at San Francisco’s Pride. This is a reminder that somehow you never inherited the subtle and not-so-subtle homophobia of the 90 percent white, ‘Good Ol’ Boys’ small town of our childhood.

I see it in your accepting smile when I tell you I’ve fallen in love with a woman when the rest of our family stares with anger, shame, and indifference.

I see it when during a cross-country drive to New York you accompany me to what is likely the only gay bar in Omaha, Nebraska. We walk into a dark, music-less room, covered with pictures of bears–something I explain to you later. It’s 9 PM on a Wednesday night and the bar has only two people– the bar tender and an older man sipping a whiskey and coke.

“I’m sorry, James. Maybe we should just leave.” You grab my hand. “Come on, we’re already here.” You sit down, order two Budweisters, and say to the 20-something serving drinks, “So this is Omaha?”

I see it when in downtown Columbus, Ohio, bustling with college students dining at hip bars and expensive restaurants, you explain your theory of ‘the scene’ to me.

“It’s about three things: popularity, education, and money. Guys like me don’t have these things.”

In my ignorance, I haven’t realized that you too are looking atthe world with a critical lens, constructing yoru own narrative. “I see it all the time, Carly. Like when you say you’re going to graduate school and people respond with an excited ‘How wonderful!’ or an encouraging ‘Good for you!’ I say I work construction and people let out a hesitant ‘Ohhhh….'”

I see it when you’re helping me lift my bookshelf that will hold the books in which you are thoroughly uninterested up three flights of stairs to my apartment.

I see it in your refusal to be different than you are when we are going into Manhattan and I try to tell you that you should wear something besides your faded Vans, ripped 501 Levis and the red shirt you found at the Salvation Army with a yellow Iguana and the words “It’s rockin’ in Cancun, Mexico.” You respond, “No, this really works for me.”

Most significantly I see your love that is rooted in feminism when I confess my fear that I might not be good enough for graduate school, that perhaps it was an accident I was accepted. You simply laugh and say, “Stop believing lies, Carly.”

You remind me that as much as I try to deconstruct and distance myself from ‘the scene’ you describe, I also contribute to and benefit from my membership within it. I know it is not your intent to challenge me, to encourage a rethinking of my politics and consciousness. Yet you’ve deepened my understanding and stretched my boundaries of what it means to be and act as a feminist.

You are a constant example that feminism is much more than books, fancy words, or credentials from academic institutions. At its core it is about love and connection.

In your love you are political–a radical, a feminist.

With gratitude,

Your sister in feminism

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