by Ryan Legg
NB: When I use the terms ‘men’ and ‘women’ in this essay, I’m using them to refer to anyone who identifies in that particular way, regardless of chromosomal makeup or downstairs plumbing.
Let’s talk about privilege.
I’m a white guy living in North America. Even better, I’m able-bodied, of average height, college-educated, and middle class. I could level that up if I went to the gym more often and had Chris Hemsworth’s jawline, but basically I’ve won the jackpot. The whole Western world is geared to show me a good time, and all I did to earn it was get born.
This is privilege.
Society unfairly tips itself in my favor because I possess arbitrary things, like working limbs and an acceptable quality of pink in my skin. In fact, there are only two things about me that could remotely qualify me for second-class citizen status — I use that loaded term deliberately — and they’re this: I’m queer, and I’m transgender.
These change the game a bit.
In very simple terms, my sexuality affects me in two ways: one, it dictates my romantic entanglements, and two, it means that, right now, in American society, I don’t qualify for certain rights. That is a big, obvious way to have less privilege.
Gender is more squirrelly.
If I can infer from past experience, most people reading this are probably wondering a few things now, like what surgeries I’ve had, what hormones I’m taking, what exciting things my jeans contain, and which public bathroom I use. One coworker once asked me how I peed. This is a unique position that trans* people and pregnant women (and pregnant men) share; our bodies become public property. Strangers put their hands uninvited on a pregnant stomach. Strangers ask, “Boy or a girl?”
Though strangers, hopefully, do not bludgeon a pregnant person if the answer is, “No.”
For the purposes of today, the relevant information is this:
- I was identified as female at birth.
- I now identify as transmasculine.
- I currently take testosterone, which has these effects.
- For the majority of the time, I am read as male.
If you want further information, I invite you in the friendliest possible way to do your research on transmen and make an educated guess. Google is your friend.
Transitioning has given me an unusual perspective on privilege. By starting out publicly identified as female, moving through the middle ground of “what the heck are you?”, and landing in a mostly male-identified space, I’ve been afforded the chance to experience multiple levels of privilege. And while my observations are limited by the culture I’ve grown up in, and the area of the world I live in, I’ve still noticed some obvious disparities.
Fear is a big one. Back when I was kinda-sorta trying to live as a woman, there were things I was constantly vigilant about, and the number one was personal safety. There is a saying attributed to the novelist Margaret Atwood that, roughly paraphrased, goes like this:
“A man’s worst fear is that women will laugh at him. A woman’s worst fear is that men will kill her.”
Arguably, that’s not always true, but the statistics of male-on-female violence certainly make for ugly reading. A 2007 national report for the Department of Justice indicated that 20 million out of 112 million women in the US had been raped during their lifetimes. That’s about 18%, or roughly 1 in 5.
So, assuming you’ve got any of the following: a mom, grandmother, sister, niece, daughter, girlfriend, wife, cousin, friend — well, that’s more than five.
Nastier fact, according to the same article: only 16% of all rapes get reported to law enforcement. So, out of that 20 million women, only 3 million (and change) ever go to the police. I’m sure there’s a whole mess of reasons tied up in why that’s the case, but I have to believe a part of it is people like Judge Hatch telling assault victims “If you hadn’t been there that night, none of this would have happened.”
Privilege is telling a woman that she can be raped based on what she’s wearing, where she’s going, and what she’s doing, and that it’s her fault. It’s placing the burden of the crappy behaviour on the oppressed, not the oppressor. Equally damaging is the message that men — and rapists of other genders — are unable to control themselves in the face of a short skirt, or a vulnerable person, or an open opportunity, as if we were creatures incapable of rising above our basest desires and being actually decent human beings.
A message against rape should not be slut-shaming. It should be don’t rape anyone.
You, reading this: consent is sexy. Don’t rape people.
When I was kinda-sorta living as a woman, I was tall, I was confident, I wore jeans and boots and men’s shirts, and I still made sure to watch my back, carry my phone, and thread my keys through my fingers whenever I didn’t feel safe, so if I ever had to punch someone in the face, they’d remember it. Despite all that, I still had a few close scrapes.
Nowadays, this is something I worry about much less. I’m still tall, still confident, but I look like a dude and mostly I get treated like one. Men don’t walk in my shadow when I’m out and about. I don’t attract cat calls or wolf-whistles. No one grabs my ass without asking, or puts their hands on my body without my permission.
(Of course, I’m not entirely complacent. Transgender violence is still a concern. In fact, my chances of being bludgeoned to death have taken a not-insignificant step up—though nowhere near as much as if I were a transwoman, or an LGBTQI person of color. Mostly that just means I keep a good side-eye on rowdy groups of young men, in case one of my non-standard gender-cues sets them off.)
I’m not going to lie, this has gotten much easier.
Well, for a relative value of ease — appearance is always going to be a field of landmines for a trans* person (or at least for this trans* person), but the expectations of my appearance have changed since I’ve begun presenting as male. I’m never told to put more effort in. Or, “You’d just be so pretty if you tried a bit of eyeliner.” I’m never told “Smile!”; a sour face is somehow more acceptable on a man. There’s less emotional investment from other people in how I look on a day-to-day basis.
I think this stems from the deep-rooted, misogynistic idea that women are dressing for other people — to impress, to look sexy, to appeal to a male gaze — whereas men simply wear clothes because walking around naked gets cold fast. A woman’s public appearance is owned by everyone. But my public appearance — well, provided I’m showered, shaved, wearing clean clothes, and vaguely upright, there isn’t much more required of me in terms of personal grooming. My body hair is not questioned or derided. I’m never told “You’d look so much more handsome if you did X.” I’m never required to look more masculine, or to do anything with my eyebrows, or to question whether my clothes are showing too much (or too little) skin. At most, I receive a few compliments when I put in extra effort. Positive reinforcement only.
I’ve also noticed that I can get away with a much more casual version of work wear than my female-identified coworkers. I work in a California coastal beach town, and routinely wear shorts and tee-shirts to work. To date, I have never seen a female-identified co-worker wearing shorts. I asked a colleague who does the exact same job as me why she still prefers to dress more formally when the thermometer hits 80°F and the office is miserable. She said, roughly paraphrased, “I can’t show my legs at work. It would give the wrong impression.”
But no one bats an eye at me.
In fact, when I shared the topic of this essay with a close friend, a lawyer by trade, she said, “I will not even tell you about the amount of time people spent at law school telling women how to dress appropriately: whether peep-toed shoes are okay, whether a judge will hate you for not wearing nylons, what the precise length your skirt should be, how many pieces of jewelry to wear and in what style. Men basically get told to find a suit that fits and match their pocket-square to their tie.”
Which brings me to my next observation. Clothes shopping? Much easier. Haircuts are cheaper, too.
This is another thing I’ve noticed more in the workplace, but it crops up in other contexts. I’m going to borrow my equally ranked colleague as an example again. As mentioned before, she is female-identified and visibly presents herself as such. She does the exact same job that I do, which involves real estate and is entirely uninteresting to write about, and she’s been doing it for at least a year longer. She’s extremely competent, intelligent, and well-spoken.
And yet, almost inevitably, people will come into the office and defer to me. Sometimes even speaking entirely over my colleague in their eagerness to get the opinion of a masculine-presenting human being.
If this were a one-time event, I wouldn’t pay it much attention. But it keeps happening. And it’s not through any particular effort on my part. I’m not any better than my colleague in terms of politeness, work ethic, professionalism (see: shorts), or reputation. In fact, quite often I have to refer the question-asker back to my colleague, because she’s been doing the job longer and she knows more about it than I do.
Likewise, when any question of office technology comes up, I’m the first port of call even though my colleague is certainly as tech-savvy as I am.
This attitude is most noticeable in my boss, who so obviously favors me over my colleague that she cracks jokes about our budding bromance. I get taken out to business lunches; I’m invited to air opinions about important decisions; I’m routinely given advanced work outside of the usual scope of my job, because I’m trusted to get it done. None of which I’m complaining about, because these are all excellent perks, but my female colleague doesn’t get nearly the same kind of attention, nor the same kinds of opportunities. The male-dominated atmosphere at work, which I have been dubiously fortunate enough to be included in, doesn’t make room for it. The male-identified folks have one clique, the female-identified folks have another, and while there is some communication across the gap, it tends to remain in shallow waters.
I’m out at work, and I’m the only person in the office who is invited to fully participate in both groups. I imagine this could be viewed as an extremely rare trans* privilege, if there is such a thing.
Speak for yourself
Majorities speak for themselves, minorities speak for the group.
What I mean by this is that if, for example, a white guy shoots another white guy on the street, that’s a senseless tragedy. If a Hispanic guy shoots another Hispanic guy on the street, well, gangbanger crime, what can you expect? If a white guy rear ends you, he’s inattentive. If it’s an Asian behind the wheel, well, everyone knows Asians can’t drive.
Likewise, if a thin person injures a knee, they should ice it and take painkillers. If a fat person injures a knee, they should stop being a lazy pig and lose weight. If a white teenager gets pregnant, she’s a slut who should have used birth control. If a Latina teenager does, it’s because they breed like rabbits and she’s trying to get her baby born in America.
Insults are subjective, but female stereotypes are noticeably nastier.
I want to clarify right now that these are things I do not believe, but they’re things I have certainly heard said. And I hear a lot more of these statements moving in male-dominated spaces, where men are treating me as ‘one of the guys’. They always come with a bullyish feeling of required reciprocation — as if when I don’t agree, I am instantly disqualifying myself from status as a Real Man. I take a step out of privileged guy territory and I’m recognized as Transgender Dude, the poor bastard who doesn’t get it.
Basically, I start speaking for my minority.
Female-identified people get hit with this one a lot. If a woman fails at driving, it’s because of her gender, not because she made a mistake. If a woman drops the ball at work, it’s because women can’t be trusted with complicated tasks, not because of one of the million reasons someone might screw up at work. If a woman has an emotional issue, it’s because women are crazy, not because people have emotions. And so on, ad nauseam.
The real kicker in this is that female-identified people aren’t a minority. They make up half of the population of the world. And yet.
And this means what, exactly?
Getting right down to the fundamentals, these are the visible things I changed about myself when I started to transition:
- I switched to he/him pronouns and a masculine-of-center name.
- I bound my chest.
- I wore clothes that society acknowledges as “male clothes.”
- I spent a good chunk of unwilling time sitting in a therapist’s office.
- Lately, I’ve started hormone therapy.
For the majority of my adult life, I’ve made a conscious effort to use the lower range of my voice when I speak. I’ve had short hair for years, long before I started transitioning. I use a lot of visibly masculine-identified behaviours, such as speaking with less inflection, refraining from talking with my hands (much), and so on. I do these things because cultural training has chiseled them into my head as masculine behaviours, and a masculine headspace is where I feel comfortable. It’s a little chicken-and-egg (did the behaviour come first, and the comfort afterwards? Or did the comfort in identifying as masculine bring out innate behaviours?)
Either way, while the outward trappings might have changed, the core hasn’t. I am the same basic human being I have always been. My voice is lower; clothes fit better; I get progressively hairier. But—this is the important thing—I haven’t suddenly flipped a magic switch that makes me a more deserving person.
I have gained privilege, but I haven’t earned it. Which is exactly why it’s privilege.
This is not a good thing.
So now what?
There is an excellent blog post called The Male Privilege Checklist (based on Peggy McIntosh’s essay, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack), which details a lot more privileges that I haven’t managed to touch on, along with a few that I have. The author, Barry Deutsch, makes two excellent points. Firstly:
“Pointing out that men are privileged in no way denies that bad things happen to men. Being privileged does not mean men are given everything in life for free; being privileged does not mean that men do not work hard, do not suffer. In many cases – from a boy being bullied in school, to a soldier dying in war – the sexist society that maintains male privilege also does great harm to boys and men.” (Emphasis mine.)
This is important. Privilege doesn’t guarantee a smooth ride, not even close, but it can help take off some of the harder edges. John Scalzi has an excellent post here comparing male privilege to playing a video game at the lowest difficulty setting: it doesn’t mean that you don’t still have challenges in the game, but you start out with the odds stacked in your favor.
Secondly, Barry Deutsch quotes an anonymous blogger friend:
“The first big privilege which whites, males, people in upper economic classes, the able bodied, the straight […] can work to alleviate, is the privilege to be oblivious to privilege.”
The blessing of privilege is ignorance, which leads to entitlement. That lovely feeling of believing my self-worth is more important than yours. That I deserve certain things out of life, like respect and attention and numerous sexual partners, willing or not. Privilege, essentially, is the easy route to being a jackass.
So what’s the antidote?
Anti-discrimination laws are a big step to levelling the playing field. Women’s rights, gay rights, anti-hate crimes—whatever your political hot buttons, starting with everyone is equal is the most basic standard we need to have. And that includes all the people we don’t like. Because who comes under the umbrella of ‘everyone’?
On a more individual level, the thing we can do right now is educate ourselves. Notice our privileges, and check them hard. The majority of the people reading this essay have a) access to the internet, and b) enough time to spend a minute wandering around it and kicking the rocks over. Check out the links I’ve included in this essay. Follow them to others. Engage other people in actual dialogue, online or otherwise.
If you’re reading this, no matter what the shape of your life is, you have some privilege. Be careful with it.