Patriarchy and fear:
“fear is so paralyzing, and yet we speak”
If fear is a premonition of violence and the system is premised on violence, then fear is a premonition of a system. Your body’s theory of society. Fear is a pre-emptive echo in your guts of something that might not happen to you but is definitely happening to someone.
Fear is what patriarchy smells like when it’s riled up. Fear keeps the system moving through history, like the trickle of water that slowly breaks down the rocks, like the unexplained bruises on your skin that heckle you for surviving. The fear is functional, necessary and even intended; it might be someone’s pleasure to inflict it, or their mindless ritual—
I remember a cis woman coming up to me in a coffeeshop because she needed to talk about getting dumped by her trans spouse. I remember her saying: “times have changed” [FOR MIDDLE CLASS WHITE QUEERS LIKE ME PERHAPS, I would add] “since in the old days, you would just have been killed if you were trans in public,” and I nodded. Have been killed, she said. Killed. A mode of violence against trans people which is so very racialized and classed, which is not past but is decidedly present. And I remember sitting in the coffeeshop and feeling defiant with my skirt and shaved head, and thinking, no matter what the risk is, I’m done being a man, man, a word which always made me queasy. The rebellion starts in your guts, sometimes.
But in my guts I was pathetically afraid all the same, afraid in so many cities and places, afraid in SoCal and Stellenbosch, in Paris and in Cleveland, afraid of the cishet world at large, transnationally afraid of people — I know it sounds emo — but yes, of people.
The fear in patriarchy is firstly the fear of the Other.
It’s so hard to put fear in words. There are childhood fragments: I remember running on my tiptoes, maybe I was 8 or 9 or 10, and being yelled at to not run like a girl. I remember being bullied on the street by boys, just because they could: I remember the vulnerability of it, my fear of being beaten, their blatant enjoyment of my weakness and anxiety. A fear of helplessness. Of being small.
Decades later, during the shaved-head-and-skirts phase, I remember being in an apple orchard in rural Ohio, the Trump countryside ten miles outside Cleveland, and having this overwhelming fear of being looked at by anybody — an ”inexplicable fear and stress,” I noted at the time. If masculinity is armor (and it is) then taking it off feels scary. The fear of patriarchy is so many things at once: a fear of stigma, of sticking out more than I can take, of weird looks and possible sudden violence. A fear of not having scripts, since conventional genders do provide a relative predictability in your encounters. It’s exhausting to negotiate your identity again and again and have it be a zone of danger or just embarrassment almost every time. You’re scared of things breaking down, of explosive indeterminacy. I don’t know what I’m afraid of. I just know it’s different from ordinary anxiety. If anxiety is a diffuse trembling, fear is like being pierced by something bitterly cold, like a premonition of stabbing.
Yet the fear in patriarchy is not only the fear of the Other. The other half of the fear comes from within, even when nothing bad is happening to you, because the voice of the system is the voice in your head, because you lived through traumatic sex and workplace harassment and getting called fag and getting bullied and getting co-opted into masculinity under threat of scorn, and also you have been an asshole in gendered ways and tried to find out why, and after all that, for every reason and none, your fear is generalized, objectless and self-inflicted. It’s a generalized fear for a general system. Some trans women report being afraid to leave their homes, and I have been there with them; some days I am still there; there can be a constant trembling, only barely assuaged by having nice friends and a trans friendly workplace and by forcing yourself to feign confidence. You’re even afraid of the fear itself, since fear is also a deeply reflexive stance, a mode of analysis energized by your own oscillations.
And then, in the scene of all this, the epidemic ruins of an imperial nightmare, somehow, you still want to reproduce. As if reproduction were the big, clumsy, inarticulate hope that you held on to in spite of it all. In spite of the fear. As if you dared to hope that reproduction was not only a space of patriarchal violence.
How can you even be a parent after all this shit, what is even left of you.
Photo courtesy of the author
And when you have children, which is a project in itself, what then? What is care work in a patriarchy that mostly seems to want us to all wear ourselves out and then die without whimpering? What does it mean to be a genderqueer parent? (A trans femme parent? A nonbinary parent?) You are still figuring yourself out, your whole life is a big comma splice.
Long ago you found out that melodrama and rebellion were mostly traps and not the real answers. So as a parent with male socialization, you are not going to declare I AM NOT A PATRIARCH or extoll revolutionary virtues; instead you are going to be more tactical and reparative, you are going to undermine the system and dodge it and try to dig it out of yourself and still love what you can love, live what you can live. You can love your patriarchs while still opposing their system.
I loved my grandparents. My grandfather with his venerable beard, his adorable shyness, his tattered Marx-Engels Reader above the typewriter, and his mountainous sweat in the sunshine. My grandmother with her immense collection of novels, her radiant warmth, her kitchen like an aromatic center of the social world, her stone porch full of plant mist and straw hats, and her collection of old high heels in the closet, which always held a certain taboo fascination. The pair of them had led a glorious, fractured, semi-respectable existence on mid-20th-century petty-bourgeois patriarchal terms — the Man had a Career, drank too much Vodka, and managed the Cars and Land while the Wife kept the House, Kitchen, watched Children, managed most of the Socializing, Smoked, and was haunted by the specter of Repressed Anger. I guess as little kids, we didn’t realize how much we ourselves made their house come alive, or guess that without our constant visits, the house may have been dangerously quiet.
I loved my grandparents and wished I could live an old house like theirs. They felt stable while my parents got divorced. But they weren’t and aren’t a model. Nonbinary parenting has no good model. No one is born nonbinary these days, and no one is born a parent, so I’m living a space of double transition, like a double loss. To be a parent is already to surrender a big part of your self, to become a big lap where someone else’s self can thrash around. To be a parent is to fear being a bad parent, to fear being helpless or a disaster. Parenting too, then, is a space of fear: mixed with inevitable, massive optimism. Even in a queerer world, patriarchy and fear don’t seem to be going anywhere.
My grandparents’ house was a space of fear too, for all that I loved it. Their house had been a space of dire feelings, of rage and structural inequalities, of sides being picked, of drunken arguments, of dire gender slots. One of the ways patriarchy works is by creating huge ideals, so that you are trapped by the impossibility of ever living up to them. It intimidates. But it also works by drawing you into its dramas, its norms, its drives to reproduce, to reproduce. It summons your desire. And it works too by being wretched, incomprehensible, and thus totally confusing. It repels: it has the fascination of a wound, a repulsive intrigue. If patriarchy is a system in motion, life in patriarchy is motion-sickness.
I don’t want to reproduce everything that made me able to reproduce. So who am I to reproduce? What am I to reproduce? Not fear — I hope it’s not fear.
I was only able to want children when I found something inside myself that I was sure I wanted to reproduce, something I could finally affirm even if I have never named it. My self is not the thing I want to reproduce, at any rate. I’m boring and moody. Stuck in the aftermath of what my students adorably used to call the gender binary. Stuck in the fear. The boring, visceral, repetitious fear. Fear is how you know you are trapped in something. A mode of historical knowledge.
But in the face of fear, parenting does give me a space: space to struggle with patriarchy up close, within and around me; space for partial surrender and partial refusal. When our older kid was born (he is now 5.5), at first I was content to be a feminist dad. Then I became a genderqueer dad. My partner, a cis woman, rightly observed that nothing is more genderqueer than presenting femme and getting called dad. But it still felt wrong: it generated new spaces of fear. In my dresses I started to feel like being called “dad” was outing me over and over in public as a freak. If I wanted to look feminine in public then I didn’t want to be masculinized every time my kid called out for me.
In this way, parenting got tied up with a newfound drive to coherence in my gender presentation. I started wanting coherence because I got sick sick sick sick of the failures and inadequacies of being publicly nonbinary. The signs of androgyny mostly just got me read as male (queer, perhaps, but male), because people try to suss out your “real” gender by assessing the body, the voice, whatever they can grab on to. So I just kept doubling down on performative femininity, in hopes of thwarting the cis assessment matrix.
But it was then, at that moment when I really decided to ditch the cishet gender norms, that they crested to the height of terror, as a wave of unfocused frenzy and menace emanated in my imagination from every stranger’s body, even though all that was happening was weird looks and general awkwardness, but beneath it, I felt like I might die under the weight of fear, a fear which advanced incrementally, as I floundered around in the signs of femininity that you can buy at the drugstore. Some trans people say that the fear at this stage is just imaginary, that no one really cares what you wear in public. But the norms in our head are not imaginary: they were beaten into us. And in the face of the fear, you can only react. Act out. I liked buying commodified femininity at CVS: it was taboo, pleasurable, weird, fun, and the more I did it, the less I got called sir.
A year or two into this process of recalibrating gender, I was happier, less misgendered, and, I have to say, less systematically scared. Fear lingers, but you get more comfortable in your commitment to outwit it, to find a nonbinary femme coherence that the public might (sometimes) recognize. You start to dodge the weird looks on instinct (surely cis women do this all the time). You get more comfortable with the struggle to show up to the struggle: eventually you want to change the terms of the struggle. I was at the playground when I decided I needed a new parent word, which became gradually a new dream, a new way of being, a new form of reproductive nonsense:
My partner made it happen. She asked our kid for another word for dad. “Shaba” was his proposal, saying that it meant “dad and girl.” I loved it: it was as good as all the conventional parent words, pa, ma, a generalized babble for help. We embraced the word as a family, but it was hard and slow to change our habits of address. I had to do a lot of reinforcement, a lot of reminders. Here is a conversation we had after a few months:
Me (trying to explain): “I like being called Shaba instead of Dad because Dad means a man and I’m not a man.”
Kid (bluntly, plaintively, declaratively): “You’re a man.”
(Pausing) “…I’m not a man.”
“You’re a man.”
“I’m not a man.”
“You’re a man.”
“I’m not a man… You don’t like it when people call you girl, right? Cause you don’t feel like a girl?”
“Well, that’s why I don’t like being called Dad, because I don’t feel like a man.”
“Could you please feel like a man?”
“I want you to feel like a man.”
We both felt sad. Stuck.
But it did get easier, more habitual. Now my kid would say, Shaba feels like a nonbinary person, not like a man. I haven’t been called Dad in a while now. Still, at first it was a loss to him to give up having a dad. I can respect that sense of loss. Most of the kids around him have a dad, and cishet norms are still everywhere. To fight patriarchy is to perhaps give up on something real in your forms of life, and perhaps to have to mourn it.
We did mourn it. We worked on it.
The everyday is so hard. You don’t know what fears are real and what fears are distortions. The everyday is a space of horror and distortion and love and unfinished business: the unfinished business of gender, of the self, of impossible reproduction.
I’ve found that if there is an exit from patriarchy, it is not all at once. It is as slow as life. But I’m ready for it. I can be patient. If patriarchy leaves us all messed up, it’s OK to take time trying to fix it. Sometimes it even feels like kids could be our collaborators in worldmaking, in making something new. But I have enough irony left to think: no doubt in turn they will also be afraid of me, of you, of us, and have bad premonitions in their guts about the nonbinary systems we somehow hoped would be more utopian than their predecessors.
That’s why “Shaba” isn’t a solution to fear. It’s a slogan, an ideogram, a mustering of coherence in the face of jumbles. A double processing of a double apprehension: a fear of patriarchal violence and a fear of failed reproduction. But even though it isn’t a solution, exactly, it does help to spread out the workload. By inventing new kin terms, maybe we’re making a critique of patriarchy available for reproduction too. Maybe my kid will want to be a Shaba? But now I’m afraid again, in a small way, because my optimism might be showing.
It’s dawn, it’s sunrise, it’s long shadows of an Atlanta morning. I’m not who I was when I started writing this. What is fear today, in an emergency state of social isolation? The fear in patriarchy changes shape too: an aimless shudder, a fear of eyes, a sense of enclosure. Fear can be a plummeting absence of recognition, when the eyes of the Other are already aggression, already wrong until sometimes they’re right.
A scary apple orchard in rural Ohio.
Photo courtesy of the author.