The privileged few
Helen G // 11 March 2008
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.