Yes, You Have Cis Privilege
I recently had a discussion with someone about privilege in light of one of my articles, “Sure, I Have Privilege, and So Do You.”
Who Has Privilege?
The article was about all the ways someone can have privilege. I admitted that I probably had benefited from male privilege when I was younger in so far as others saw me as male. I may have had opportunities other women wouldn’t have had because of others viewing me as male: did I get into the college of my choice because I was seen as male (a purely academic question, since I couldn’t afford to go to my college of choice right away and ended up going to a community college for two years)? Did I beat others out for jobs? Did I get paid more? I honestly don’t know. I suspect sometimes it could have been the case but I also know of cases where it wasn’t.
Some would say I still have male privilege, and I can’t deny that some privileges were invariably bestowed upon me over years of others seeing me as a man. The question of privilege is quite nuanced, and I’m not backing off my contention that, although there may be some vestiges of male privilege for those of us who were thought of as male for several decades, I am in no way treated as male now and do not benefit from male privilege. Let me be clear: I don’t know what advantages I had — I suspect that I would have gone to the same colleges and had a similar career regardless — but a society built on patriarchy and set up to favor men will invariably provide some privilege to those viewed as male (even if we really aren’t).
Why Some Think Cisgender Privilege Doesn’t Exist
What I heard much pushback about, though, was a different kind of privilege that I mentioned. I had the audacity to suggest that cisgender privilege exists. You see, some argue that women are so discriminated against, and patriarchy is such that women don’t have any kind of privilege, especially not cis privilege.
I don’t know if I would call this view pervasive, but it does seem to have several adherents. In getting ready to write this article, I read the comments on the article I referenced in my earlier article, Rachel Anne Williams’ “Cis Privilege is About the Little Things.”
Cis Privilege Is About the Little Things
When you don’t pass for cis, the world looks a little bit different
There again, someone was saying that because of the way women are treated, they reject the idea that women have any kind of advantage in terms of gender. And I must admit there are some arguments I can somewhat agree with. This writer pointed out that much of what Rachel Anne Williams was concerned about — being self-conscious in the restroom, being hypervigilant in general — were issues women regularly deal with anyway. And yes, I agree with that.
Exploring the Anti-Cis Privilege Argument
However, there are a few issues with this argument. First, Rachel Anne Williams has mentioned in other articles that she identifies as non-binary. The issues, especially around bathroom usage, are especially fraught for non-binary folks. Sometimes a non-binary person will look like one binary gender or another and might use a bathroom or other gendered space that most approximates the gender people see them as. On the other hand, they may not feel comfortable in any binarily gendered spaces.
Bathrooms are one example, and usually the most common, so let’s go with that for a moment. How many gender neutral bathrooms have you seen at baseball games. theaters, even restaurants? If a non-binary person is so frightened of using a bathroom that could end up getting them hurt that they hold it for hours and hurt themselves in the process, wouldn’t you say that someone who is not trans has privilege in that case? And, remember, although this is about gender, it is not strictly about binary gender. In fact, someone who presents androgynously may have a larger issue than someone who appears to be of a binary gender.
The other issue with the “this is the plight of women argument,” is one of motivation. For the most part, I benefit from “passing privilege.” That is, I look enough like a cis woman that hardly anyone judges me otherwise. Therefore, I do not usually feel discomfort when using a public bathroom designated for women. However, even I sometimes — when in places that do not seem understanding — am self-conscious. Not as part of some fear of being judged or because others might be looking at me a certain way, or whatever other reason someone might come up with. No, I am just concerned that someone will somehow figure out that I am transgender — sometimes my voice gets really low, sometimes I cough or blow my nose loudly — and that someone will throw me out, or that I will get bodily hurt. It is not the first time that would have happened and the number one threat I read from neanderthals online is “if I see one of those freaks go in the ladies room behind my sister/girlfriend/5 year old girl (I’ve seen all of these), I will beat their ass/kill it/chop it off myself.” When was the last time a cis woman was threatened just for having the temerity to pee?
Yes, it is true that women have reason to be self-conscious or even fearful when out in public, but trans women have those fears as much as cis women do. Our fears, however, sometimes have a different cause than those of cis women. Trans women’s fears spring specifically from them being trans, and can apply to trans men just as well as trans women. If cis women do not have cis privilege because of being biologically female, then trans men must retain cis privilege as well. But tell that to a cis man the next time he is trying to find a place to pee safely, the next time he tries to avail himself of any accommodation without outing himself as transgender and putting himself in danger.
A big part of the problem seems to be an inability to fully understand the idea of intersectionality. The people who make the claims I’ve described are often white. Occasionally they will admit that they have white privilege, but seem to suggest that it should be looked at differently than questions of gender privilege, that it isn’t as significant in how they interact with society as their lack of male privilege. I agree that the various kinds of privilege play out differently in terms of social interaction. However, they still exist.
Cis privilege is not the same as white privilege and I’m not saying it is. I’m not using white privilege as an example to compare being trans to being a person of color. The truth is there are people of color who are trans, and they are marginalized even further than cis people of color or white trans people. In particular, trans women of color are killed at an alarming rate relative to other women of color and other trans women. Although the idea that life expectancy of trans women of color is 35 appears to be a misinterpretation of data, there are plenty of indications of indications of the high rate of violence against trans women of color. Here is a trans woman of color, aged 31, responding to the notion that she has only four years to live, pointing out that there is still a lot of violence against others like her even if the 35 year life expectancy idea is erroneous.
As A Trans Woman Of Color, I Should Only Have 4 Years Left To Live
Amid the asinine fight over the safety of women and girls if we dare to let trans women use their gender appropriate…
And at least 19 trans women of color have been murdered in the U.S. in 2019 as of October 9, according to HRC.
HRC Mourns Itali Marlowe, Black Trans Woman Killed in Houston | Human Rights Campaign
HRC is deeply saddened to learn of the death of Itali Marlowe, a Black transgender woman who was killed in Houston on…
No, I’m not saying that being trans is in any way like being a person of color. I’m just saying that being white and being cis are both ways someone can have privilege and that privilege exists in both cases. In other words, it is possible to have privilege in one aspect of your life and not in another. Intersectionality exists. A white woman can acknowledge she has white privilege without denying that male privilege exists. A cis woman can acknowledge that she has cis privilege without denying that male privilege exists.
What This All Comes Down To
The linchpin of the anti-cis privilege argument seems to be a denial of trans identities, that trans men are not men, that trans women are not women. Most of these people seem to have no clue what to do with non-binary identities, either. But if someone agrees that transgender identities are valid, then it only stands to reason that people who aren’t trans have an advantage in our society.
Of course, this also depends on the idea that being trans is not a choice. Let me assure you being trans is most certainly not a choice. We are a very small, very marginalized group of individuals in Western society. Why would anyone choose that? If trans women were just men, why would they want to give up male privilege?
Here’s where we get back to the question of whether trans women have male privilege. If they do, though, if transitioning does not keep society from treating them as men, then it only stands to reason trans men do not gain male privilege when they transition. And, for those who do not feel trans identities exist, why would a trans man would “choose” to be trans if there is no advantage in it? The idea of privilege can not be used to support the idea that being trans is a choice or that trans identities are not valid.
This view also totally ignores and seeks to invalidate non-binary folks. As I mentioned already, a conception in which trans privilege does not exist relies heavily on the idea of a binary. If someone was assigned female at birth and were still viewed by others as female, they might very well experience the same marginalization that others viewed as female experience. But they might also suffer for being non-binary as well. As mentioned above, there are all sorts of issues surrounding assumptions about a non-binary person’s gender and about public accomodations for those who exist outside the gender binary.
Trans People Exist and so Does Cis Privilege
To sum up, then, cis privilege exists, just as male privilege, white privilege, and other forms of privilege do. A cisgender woman can still suffer the marginalization that women face in this society while maintaining cisgender privilege. It’s no different than white women maintaining white privilege while still being marginalized as women. It’s called intersectionality.
The only way cis privilege could not exist would be if transgender people (trans men, trans women, non-binary identities of any kind) didn’t exist, or if trans people somehow had an advantage in society. It is pretty easy to dispute that second point. There isn’t anything like “trans privilege” in our society, not when so many trans people are fired, evicted, denied shelter just for being trans.
The fact that several states have laws against discrimination against transgender people only shows that there is a need to protect the rights of trans people as a class. If trans people had privilege just for being trans, there wouldn’t be need for such laws. As someone who lives in a state that just last year settled the question with a state-side referendum approving encoding such rights into law (Massachusetts), I can assure you there very much is a need.
And of course trans identities are valid and exist in many forms. Not only does the medical, mental, and public health community agree, so does most of society. By and large, most people accept trans people for who we are. Although there is an occasional curmudgeon who doesn’t want to use the singular “they” or have issue with use of some other pronoun that suits a non-binary person best (as in ze/zer, etc.), most cisgender people happily accept and use the pronouns a person asks them to use. And most cis people I know (possibly all; I haven’t met someone yet who isn’t) use the word cisgender to refer to themselves vis a vis transgender people. That means only a small minority of people don’t acknowledge that we exist.
True, someone could say just because belief in trans identities is a popular opinion that doesn’t make it right. Sure, of course that’s right. But the increasing popularity of the view that trans identities are valid is coming from the increasing amounts of literature and attitudes of people of science based on research about trans people. Gender dysphoria, for example, exists, though no one suggests this has to be present for someone to be trans. There are standards of care for trans people who need medical or psychological interventions (not all of us do).
Thoughtful Comments Encouraged
I fully realize that some people might read just the headline or selective parts of this article and leave nasty comments below. I certainly won’t stop them, but refuse to argue with spurious arguments. However, if you have thoughtful comments and would like to have a well-reasoned, reasonable argument, I welcome your remarks below.
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