How Privilege is More Complex Than You Might Think
I am going to say something a bit controversial.
As someone treated as male growing up, I benefited from male privilege.
There, I said it. While mistaken for male, I had access to opportunities that I am convinced I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I have worked most of my adult life in education, a mostly woman-dominated field, and feel that I was often taken more seriously or given a different set of expectations from my peers. I don’t have all the data, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I made more money than many of my female peers.
I have a few qualifications for that statement, though. First, notice I said benefited — past tense. I might have had privilege as long as people thought I was male, but once I transitioned, all bets were off. It’s funny how my IQ apparently dropped dozens of points once people viewed me as a woman. And the mansplaining, oh, the mansplaining!
I mean, it’s not like a mechanic will say, “Oh, you were assigned male at birth? Forget that previous estimate. Let me give you a more fair price and stop acting so condescending toward you.” No man ever stopped their catcalling when realizing a woman is trans. In fact, that just makes it worse: how dare you look good enough for them to objectify but turn out to be trans? Their invective is humiliating at best and deadly at worst.
More than one trans man has told me that if they hadn’t believed in male privilege before transition, they surely noticed it now. Presumably, they noticed the difference in how they were treated as a man. If a trans man has male privilege after transition, it stands to reason that a trans woman would not have male privilege after transition.
Do I have any vestiges of male privilege now? Maybe. Who knows where I would be in my career if I had started it living openly as the woman I am? but it is hard to tell: did I earn my current job as Janelle or due to the man people perceived me to be many years ago? Or both? In the end, it matters very little. I might make more money than other women, but I also make less than some. There may be vestiges of the opportunities I once had, but they are slowly dying on the vine. The longer society treats me as a woman, the less accessible any of those remnants of privilege are to me.
Notice I said benefitted, not enjoyed. Many trans women have pointed this out before. We may have been treated as male, but it was far from enjoyable. Treating us like men or boys, only exacerbates the dysphoria. Our experiences — from early memories on — are interpreted through a different lens than they would be if we were cisgender males.
I might have benefitted from being perceived as male for much of my life, but it wasn’t something I wanted and — I would submit — it wasn’t something readily accessible. Because I knew I wasn’t male, I felt like I was playing a role, pretending to be a boy. Any privilege conferred was transitory: I knew it wasn’t really meant for me.
And this all assumes I was universally treated like a male. It sets aside the times I was called “sissy,” the f-word, and the p-word. It ignores the reality of gender policing administered with punches and kicks to accompany the slurs. Is this the same as the treatment cisgender girls receive? No. Have cisgender boys received such treatment, too? Of course. But for cis boys the message is how you look and act is unacceptable. For a nascent trans girl, the message is much stronger: who you are, the very core of your being is wrong and you will be punished for it.
Overall, yes, I absolutely benefited from male privilege. But it was much more complex than some would have you believe. And again, I relinquished it when I transitioned. Some would say being able to relinquish privilege is the epitome of having privilege. Maybe, but relinquishing also means I don’t have it any more.
We All Have Privilege
Now comes the more tricky part of privilege. You see, almost everyone benefits from some kind of privilege. I am a white, middle class, American woman. I practically ooze privilege. Even having relinquished whatever male privilege I might have had, I still have white privilege, middle class privilege, educated privilege, and the list goes on. Many of these intersect. If I wasn’t white and middle class, and if I wasn’t the youngest child in a family where everyone had gone to college, who knows if I would have ever earned a Bachelor of Arts degree, much less the Master of Education degree I also hold. Without those degrees, I wouldn’t have the career I have now. Life would be very different for me.
I think, of all the kinds of privilege I have had, white privilege is the most virulent. If I had lived as a woman in my teens or younger, I probably would have gotten into the same colleges, had most of the same opportunities. Had I not been white, though, I doubt that. Especially if I had also had the misfortune of being born poor. There is no doubt I have benefitted from white privilege.
And it’s not just me. In our society, white people — every one of us — have privilege. Any time you say you don’t “see race,” or think the idea of race is overblown, you are showing off your privilege. If you can get through a whole day without having to think about race, without being aware of just how racial disparity in our culture affects you, then you are benefiting from white privilege.
Heterosexual Privilege, Cisgender Privilege
But privilege doesn’t just involve race, class, or how society perceives your gender. If you are only attracted to someone of a different gender, then you probably benefit from heterosexual privilege. And that’s what makes something like the Straight Pride March happening next month here in Boston so ridiculous it would be laughable if it weren’t so offensive. For someone without straight privilege (namely, LGBTQIA+ people), pride is an essential way of letting the world know that we are still here, that we survived. For straight people, however, a pride march is just a display of straight privilege. No one has ever been fired just for being straight. No one has ever been assaulted just for holding hands with their opposite-gender partner in public (yes, I said opposite — there is also binary privilege bound up in much of this).
Then there is cisgender privilege. Someone is cisgender if they are the gender that matches the sex they were assigned at birth. My wife, for instance, was assigned female at birth and identifies as a woman. She is cisgender. In contrast, some of our friends were assigned female at birth but identify as something other than a woman — some are some form of non-binary, some are trans men. Our friends would not be cisgender.
Not too long ago, Rachel Anne Williams wrote a great article here on Medium about what it feels like to be on the other end of cis privilege. She does a great job of detailing the typical ways trans people run up against cis privilege on a daily basis.
Of course, there are some who think cisgender is a made up word or that there is no such thing. Of course it is a made up word; all words are. Does it have validity as a descriptive term, though? Yes it does. It is to gender what heterosexual or straight is to lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, or any other kind of sexuality that does not imply attraction solely to someone of a different gender. Those who deny they are cis, or reject the term, are in effect exercising cis privilege. It is very much like white people denying they have white privilege, or that white privilege exists at all. If you go through a whole day without having to think about your gender identity, without noticing how being cis provides privilege, then you probably have cis privilege.
Other Forms of Privilege
For those of us who are trans, there is also “passing privilege.” I feel like I am somewhere in that gray area of sometimes appearing to others as a cisgender woman, and sometimes being apparently trans. To the extent that I usually am perceived as a woman, I feel I do have a decent amount of passing privilege. When I walk down the street, I don’t usually hear whispers of “is that a he or a she?” or rude comments. Maybe they are there, maybe they aren’t.
In the past several years, the only time I have been called “sir” is on the phone. And I contend the most recent times weren’t just about gender, as I was inquiring about something for my wife and only got “sirred” once I mentioned that I had a wife. So that seems to be as much about heterosexism as about cissexism. In any case, the fact that I don’t usually worry that the clerk at 7–11 is going to call me “sir,” or that a coworker will refer to me as “he,” that people tend to take me at face value and not question my gender, that is all down to passing privilege.
Can non-passing trans women still be impacted by lack of male privilege? Absolutely. It’s just that there is also an added layer of trans misogyny added to the plain, everyday misogyny. The same goes for non-passing trans men and many non-binary folks, who cis society has a hard time categorizing.
What It Means — The Complexities of Privilege
So just about everyone has privilege of one sort or another. I haven’t covered all the kinds of privilege by any means, and don’t intend to. What I do want to point out is the intersectionality of it all. For instance, I have white privilege, passing privilege (usually), middle class privilege, and educated privilege, but not male privilege. Does my lack of male privilege mean I have no privilege at all? No. I just said all the ways I have privilege.
Do all these other privileges outweigh any lack of privilege I have had as a woman? Maybe. You see, that’s where things get complex. White privilege and male privilege are different, and imply different, well, privileges. They would be a double whammy if I still had both (I don’t), but as it is it is hard to tease out where all my privilege came from and what it means. Do I have a good job because I was assigned male at birth and treated as a male for the first several decades of my life? Maybe. But it is more likely that race and social class played the bigger part.
Another good example of this is white people who deny white privilege by saying that they grew up poor. “I didn’t have privilege,” they say. Of course, they are confusing the issue. They had white privilege and their experiences of growing up poor are completely different from someone of color who grew up poor.
In fact, in terms of how someone is treated, race probably plays a much bigger factor than income or class. Why else would there still be such little representation by people of color in the highest echelons of government and industry? The election of Barack Obama as POTUS in 2008, instead of demonstrating a “post-racial” America — served to show how rare (and fraught) such achievements are.
Where Should We Go From Here?
So what do we do with our privilege? Our privilege can be used to help others. I am always grateful to cis people who speak up for trans people. As a white woman, I try speak up for women of color (especially trans women of color, the discrimination against whom has proven deadly). As someone with white privilege I am in the position to point out racial disparities and expect that others might even listen, might even take me seriously. As someone with passing privilege, I can stand up for my trans siblings who may not fit the cis-normative ideal of appearance.
The first step, though, is acknowledging our privilege. If you are white but deny you have privilege as a result — if you are heterosexual or cis and deny that gives you privilege — you cannot leverage that privilege to help others. the first step is to acknowledge that privilege.
What privilege do you have? How can you use it to help others? Post your thoughts in the responses below.