The privileged few

by Helen G // 11 March 2008, 14:13

Jess’ recent posts about class privilege at Liberal Conspiracy, and the Trans 101 For Dumbasses video by Calpernia Addams have started me thinking once again about the subject of ‘private law’, with particular reference to "My Life As A Trans Woman".

Since beginning my transition, I have become increasingly aware of the various privileges accorded to, or withheld from, me - beginning with the realisation of how widespread male privilege and its effects are.

But, as bad as it is - and it is bad - male privilege isn’t the only iniquitous advantage out there. There are many other privileges, they all have their own impacts, and they all intersect and overlap in many and different ways. Tekanji provides links to many others at her blog, shrub.com, which is well worth a visit in its own right. I’m keen to avoid reinventing the wheel, so I’m not going to reproduce the links to all the postings on privilege here (check the sidebar on her blog) but it’s useful to remember some of the more common ones: able-bodied privilege, white privilege, heterosexual privilege, non-fat privilege...

As I stated at the start of this piece, my transition has, amongst other things, sparked within me a specific interest in non-trans*, or cisgender privileges. This page at T-Vox.org has possibly the most comprehensive list of these that I’ve found, and it’s interesting to compare it with both the male privilege checklist at Alas! A Blog and the white privilege checklist compiled by Peggy McIntosh.

At the risk of waking the MRA trolls with a sweeping generalisation, let me say that there is no doubt that white cisgender males (WCMs) have so many advantages that it’s almost impossible to quantify them all. What is striking is how few of these WCMs have even the faintest idea of all the benefits they receive. To my mind, this blissful ignorance has a distinct parallel with the way that many people, be they WCMs or not, do not comprehend gender dysphoria and transsexualism. This may be an oversimplification but it’s a useful shorthand: ‘sex’ is what’s between one’s legs whereas ‘gender’ is between our ears. From this, it’s easy enough to understand that my brain was expecting a female body. But if one has never experienced such a dissonance, and has always used the terms sex and gender more or less synonymously, then it is hard to understand ‘what all the fuss is about’.

It may sound as though I’m trying for the proverbial gold medal at the oppression olympics here, but really I’m not. What I’m saying is that, with such an extreme imbalance of power, any ideas of equality with Teh Menz™ seem unlikely to become reality any time soon.

Which leads me to ask: given that the privilege system is so firmly entrenched in favour of WCMs, is it in fact possible to achieve real equality for trans women without a complete restructuring of society to include some sort of positive discrimination? This is not something I am personally in favour of - like quotas for women in political parties, such an approach encourages separatism - and "separate" is not "equal".

So what form should this hypothetical restructuring of the trans* (in)equality power base take? In an ideal world, all privileges would simply evaporate, to be somehow magically replaced by equality for all - but in the real world? I think our best hope is probably to be found in the long, slow process of education, raising awareness and changing attitudes. I’m not advocating some esoteric form of entryism; it would not be desirable, even if it were possible. Nor will non-violent direct action make the difference; in addition to the ethical and moral dilemmas arising from breaking the law, there are too few of us, we are too marginalised and tokenised by too many sections of society to achieve equality by these means. And, after the exclusion of transgendered people from the protection of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) in America last year, it’s clear that the few alliances the trans* communities do have cannot be relied upon to support us if and when a conflict of interests is perceived to exist: in the case of ENDA, the primary concern of many GLB groups was perceived to be the safeguarding of their own existing privileges, with a vague promise to try to enact a bill on gender identity protection at an undefined point in the future. Lisa Harney has written comprehensively on this particular subject - click here to view the summary page on her blog.

I think it would be helpful for trans people to have a focus for our activism for social change, something motivational, something inspirational. I’m aware of, and grateful for, the existence of Press For Change - their political lobbying is invaluable and has greatly advanced the cause of trans people, but if you mention the name to the woman on the Clapham omnibus, the chances are you will be met with a blank look. Yet that same imaginary person is quite likely to know that Stonewall is an organisation campaigning for the rights of GLB people. I only wish there was something akin to Stonewall for trans people, helping to raise awareness in the public’s mind.

I don’t doubt that there are plenty of outgoing and well-informed trans people who would be more than happy to be involved in such a thing. Unfortunately we are caught in a vicious circle: until we begin to reverse the negative bias of the media, we are unlikely to make progress in changing attitudes at the grass roots level. But as long as there is such ignorance at grass roots level, the media is unlikely to feel the need to change its portrayal of us as freaks, perverts and misfits. But if we are to be ‘out on our own’ anyway, then it should be simple enough to stand up and be counted while we’re there.

Sadly, for many of us, transitioning is about nothing more or less than survival. And it’s hard to find the incentive to put one’s head above the parapet when all we want is simply to get through one more day unscathed, just once not to be subject to the discrimination, bigotry and transphobia that make up such a fundamental and very familiar part of our lives. This negativity arises from people in privileged positions and who wish to maintain those privileges, irrespective of the cost to others - and this has to change. The comments on this piece at NewsBusters (via Zöe Brain) are a common enough example of the hatred and persecution directed at us: small wonder, then, that many trans people choose to live in stealth. And yet, and yet... I keep asking myself why it has to be this way, what it will take to change society for the better.

Given our comparatively small numbers (these calculations by Donna Patricia Kelly in 2001 suggested a minimum of 35,000 trans people in the UK - one person in 1400) it would seem that the only pragmatic option left to openly trans people like me, is to let the way we live our lives demonstrate that we too are only human. We are just ordinary people trying to make our way in the world as we come to terms with a condition with which we were born. And, in my opinion, that is not sufficient reason for the unequal treatment, the hate crimes, the psychological and physical violence meted out to us, day in, day out, from the moment we stick our noses outside our doors each morning until we close our eyes last thing at night.

Comments From You

Jess // Posted 11 March 2008 at 14:36

Great first post, Helen :)

I was wondering if you can explain what the significance of the * is in trans*?

Helen G // Posted 11 March 2008 at 15:03

Thank you!

The use of * is similar to its use in computing, that is, as a 'wildcard'. In this case, I would intend that you could use 'trans' as a prefix. Thus 'trans*' could mean trans woman, trans man, transsexual, transgender, and so on.

Apologies for the unintended obfuscation!

Leigh Woosey // Posted 12 March 2008 at 11:16

This checklist might be useful for explaining to men the nature of WCM privelage, but has prolly been posted before. It's the kind of thing that should be put onto the national school syllabus.

Sian // Posted 12 March 2008 at 20:32

A well-written, thoughtful article. I've wondered previously about trans* numbers-so thanks for that (am liking the asterisk too!).

I wonder whether if there were high-profile transpeople in mainstream media it might go some way to changing people's preconceptions-speaking from my own experience I have never knowingly got to know a transperson in real life; before I started reading various feminist blogs on the internet I was transphobic (I realise now that I was lucky enough to be reading the transfriendly bits of the feminist blogosphere, but still). Comparable to the way that ordinary gay people are perceived has changed in part due to the woman on the Clapham omnibus thinking of that nice gay man on the telly. But of course whilst there is such strong transphobia the opportunities, or willingness, to be high profile in the mainstream media is going to be limited (in addition to the relatively small population). Vicious circle, etc.

Kate Smurthwaite // Posted 14 March 2008 at 13:42

Very interesting post.

For me - I object to living in a society where gender roles and expectations are so fixed and inescapable that people feel the need to have extensive surgery simply in order to feel "right" in their own bodies. I'd like to live in a society where we think of people as people first and gender as a secondary issue. Sadly that is a long way away and in the mean time I have great sympathy with those start out along that path. I'm sure I read somewhere that trans* people have a higher suicide rate than just about any other definable group. Which I think goes some way further to making my point that we have to respect people as people first and foremost. We not only don't need to judge them on their gender - we don't need to know their gender. Nothing annoys me more than being out in a bar somewhere and someone whispering "he or she?" pointing at someone. Why do you need to know? How rigid are your prejudices that you can't cope with not knowing someone's gender? If you're not sure how someone wants to be addressed - ask them, and then stick to what they request, otherwise none of your business any more than someone's job or favourite football team is.

Helen G // Posted 14 March 2008 at 14:26

Hello Kate, thank you for commenting...

I agree with you about the pressures put on people by society at large, but would also add that I believe I would have transitioned anyway, even if those external pressures didn't exist. I was about 5 years old when I first knew that my body didn't look/feel/behave the way it should - sorry I'm not describing it very well - and even though society was telling me I was male from the day I was born, I knew inside that I wasn't. I just wasn't, and as a result I lived through years and years of holding it all back, pushing it down inside me as deep as I could, repressing, denying. ...*le sigh*... But even though the external pressures played their part, the original dissonance was, and to a certain, much reduced extent still is, internal.

But yes, definitely it would be a huge step forward if there was a wider acceptance - and, ideally, understanding - of gender variance. Maybe - in addition to reducing the burden of the gender variant individual - it would also help in reducing the "need" for privileges, discrimination and inequality that shapes all our lives.

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