I Didn’t Know I Was Privileged until I Gave It up.
For most of my life, I presented, even identified, as a heterosexual, cisgender man. I always knew something wasn’t quite right with that but it took me quite a while (read “decades”) to realize that gender was my issue. I suppose I should actually say that I finally accepted that I am a trans woman. Well, a trans femme non-binary . . . look, gender is complicated. My likes, interests, attitudes and even the way I dressed were always on the feminine or androgynous side but I convinced myself that I was just an effeminate man until the time came when I could no longer live in that denial.
Looking back, it was pretty obvious. My love of going shopping with my exes to help pick out new outfits, the discomfort I felt around men when they were talking about women, the fact that most of the women I found attractive were gay or bi and my emotionality that often had me joking “I’m the girl in this relationship” where all giant red semaphore flags being waved by my inner gay woman spelling out:
Once I confronted my gender issues (you probably noticed I still deflect some of them) and decided to live openly as a transgender person, I felt the need to figure out what had kept me in that denial for so long. After reading Dr. Jeana Jorgensen’s discussion of a feminist take on privilege, I must wonder if part of the reason was a fear of abandoning my privilege as a straight white guy.
When we talk about privilege, we’re not talking about a higher socioeconomic status. Basically, what this type of privilege means is not having to put up with the crap others do because you are of the privileged class. Men never have to deal with the crap women have to deal with. They’ll never have to fend off some schmuck who thinks that he deserves sex because he paid for dinner or find out that the woman who has the same job but isn’t as good at it is paid 20% more. White people will never have to put up with crap like getting pulled over by a cop who approaches their window with his gun drawn at the same rate black people do. Cisgender people will never put up with crap like being attacked for going to the bathroom like a transgender person can be, and it doesn’t matter which bathroom we use. There are places where someone will object to us relieving ourselves in whichever restroom we choose. This is privilege, the ability to not get harassed for being who you are.
As Dr. Jorgensen points out, most people who are privileged don’t even realize it because the mechanisms of privilege are invisible to those with the privilege. Privilege doesn’t work by greeting you every day with roses piled by your bedside. It works on the people without privilege by making their lives harder. In all of the examples above, you never see those incidents and you never feel the emotional impact they have if you are not a part of the group they are directed at. That is your privilege, not having to have those experiences.
The invisibility of privilege allows white people to congratulate themselves for not being racist and having a “post-racial” society while Hispanic-, Asian-, and African-Americans will all tell you that race is a major factor in their everyday lives. Cis-het people can complain about LGBTQ+ people having Pride celebrations not having to understand that Pride is a protest against the treatment that the community receives from cis-het people.
When I was still in denial, I think part of the reason I didn’t let myself think along the lines of being trans was that I knew on a subconscious level that I would be giving up my straight, white guy privilege. Of course, I didn’t think about it in those terms. It’s called denial for a reason, but as I was starting to figure things out, I realized that I was very worried about privilege issues. I worried about putting myself in physical danger from bigots, about not being accepted by people, about not being able to get a job, about never finding love.
In all honesty, I was right to be worried. I haven’t been attacked yet but I have been threatened. (I got the guy kicked out of the bar though so that felt good.) People look at me weirdly every day and sometimes go out of their way to avoid me. A guy actually ran into a wall keeping his distance from me. I haven’t been on a date for years. Well, that has more to do with my trust issues than trans issues, but some of the trust issues are about putting my trans lesbian self out there for rejection, so it still counts.
Conversely, I have heard from trans men about how they have gained privilege. They start making more money and find getting promotions easier. People who have known them for years when they presented as women suddenly start paying attention to them when they talk in ways they never did before. They don’t have to put up with the same harassment they once did and they can walk down the street without the same fear of assault.
You can find people on the internet claiming that privilege doesn’t exist, that there’s no such thing as male privilege or straight privilege or cis privilege. I can tell you from firsthand experience that there is. I have been on both sides of all of those privilege divides. I presented as a straight, cisgender man and, in certain terms, life was pretty easy, at least when compared to my current life as a gay transfeminine person.
I can tell that some people, especially men, do not put as much weight on my words as they once did. I’m the same person with the same faculties, knowledge, skills and Mensa membership but because I choose to live authentically to my gender, I am somehow less in their eyes than when I presented as male — less serious, less intelligent, less than a man — just as they would view any woman. I would like to say that this attitude was exclusive to men but it is not. I’ve been advised by women who were trying to be helpful to keep quiet about my problems with both transitioning and with other people. I was polite but I still made someone uncomfortable. I should instead keep it to myself. Embrace stigma. Don’t make the privileged class uncomfortable.
Obviously, I don’t do this. My choice to live authentically and openly is not an issue open to debate any more than it should be for any cisgender person. The real problem was that these women believed that it was right for them to tell me how to talk to others and what I should or should not be offended by. Because I am not cisgender, these women believed that my right to self-expression had to be controlled. I tried to get them to understand what they were asking of me but they couldn’t see the problem because to them my concerns were invisible.
Privilege’s invisible nature is it’s most bothersome characteristic because it makes it difficult to deal with and its very existence exacerbates the social problems we have in the United States and other countries. Privilege issues are at the heart of many of the societal issues we deal with. Racism is a privilege issue as is homophobia and transphobia. Straight, white, male and Christian describes the people who are the most privileged in American society and they are also the ones most likely to argue that privilege does not exist. It is not because they are bad people but because they cannot see how privilege works. They can live their lives without the fears and frustrations that plague PoC, queers, non-Christians, and women on a daily basis. If you can’t see a problem for yourself, you can’t believe in it.
Despite all of these problems and the desire among many of us to change our society’s relationship with it, we have to accept that privilege is not going anywhere. There will always be a privileged class. It seems to be an anthropological imperative. While we can’t change that fact, we can ask some very important questions about it. Where does it come from? Is it best to give or deny privilege based on the accident of birth? How does privilege affect those without it? How can we mitigate the worst effects of privilege? There are countless others.
On a personal level, we can examine our lives and find what privileges we are granted. We can try to understand how others who do not have those same privileges have to live their lives and the feelings that engenders in them. We can also identify what privileges we do not have and understand the impact that has on us. How can we change society to ease that impact?
Until we identify and accept privilege’s place in our societal ills, we will continue to have those ills so I believe we should continue to talk about it until the day comes that we learn to recognize and deal with it.