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Aug 01 2012

Being Welcome

My process of developing an understanding of privilege, power and the social dynamics that go along with them has been mostly guided by my lived experiences, and by conversation, marked largely by individual moments that led to individual insights, or shifts in perspective.

I was fortunate enough to go to college, where I did get a chance to study things like that (actually, the very first text I was assigned in my very first week of college was called “Privilege, Power and Difference”), but the academic approach to them, in the insular and itself highly privileged, sheltered bubble of academia… it didn’t make much sense to me, and though I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it in retrospect, it left me feeling frustrated and a bit resentful. Maybe I lacked the necessary reference points, maybe I was just young, maybe I was too sheltered at the time myself, maybe it’s just not the way I learn best, or maybe it’s just that the versions of these things one reads and discusses in that environment really don’t have the same substance that they do when lived and encountered and talked about in the worlds where they’re daily realities rather than topics for papers. I don’t know.

Though I hardly ever use my academic education as a touchstone in much of anything outside of literature, art, and linguistics. Certainly not in my understanding of the social dynamics of identity. Instead, though how I grew and learned was a long, incremental process, and one that is ongoing, what I find myself turning to as touchstones whenever I need to orient myself, remind myself of the reality of what I’m thinking about, find some perspective, are a number of significant moments. Moments that symbolized something, where I noticed something I hadn’t noticed before, where I experienced something I hadn’t yet experienced, where I made a connection, where I looked at something from a certain perspective for the first time, where someone said something to me that allowed something to make sense… moments where, for the first time, I was somehow able to find new insight, or where an idea connected with reality.

I lived as a heroin addict for three years. During that time, I was poor, I was desperate, I was lost, I was every bit as messed up as the others around me, with whom I used, from whom I bought, who I talked to, who I’d help when I could, who’d help me when they could, etc. But I didn’t look the same, or talk the same, and the deeper I got into things, the more I went from being an idiot chipper playing with something far too dangerous to being an actual junkie living the life, the more that became apparent.

One of the things I heard a whole hell of a lot in my time in the Downtown Eastside was “you don’t look like you belong here”.  I was frequently mistaken for a staff member at the safe injection site (by the clients, not the staff), and would often be approached as such. I had to be very careful who I bought from, and had to focus on my regulars, the guys I trusted and who trusted me, because people who didn’t know me would often peg me for some cocky student slumming it and take the opportunity to burn me, selling me little balls of wax or crumpled toilet paper folding up in the paper flaps rather than actual heroin, or sometimes they’d sell me $10 flap claiming it cost $20. Sometimes I could get them to realize I knew what was going on and that was enough to get them to treat me the way they’d treat the “real” customers, but sometimes I had to just go ahead and accept the situation, let them assume I was as novice as they took me for, just for the sake of avoiding a dangerous confrontation. After all, what was I going to do? Threaten them?

(This actually changed with transition. Even though at that point I was very rarely using, being read as trans meant I was read as an outsider, and therefore one of them. This often included them assuming I was a sex worker, and often led to a good deal of sexual harassment, but still… I was no longer taken for a “tourist”)

But what was more important than that, than how I was treated by the other addicts, was how I was treated by everyone else. The moment of realization I had was when I was having a coffee with one of the staff from the safe injection site, and he pointed out how exceptional I was in being a client who could be treated as welcome in a coffee shop. While occasionally the fact that I looked, talked, and carried myself like a “functional” member of a society, or more accurately, a “functional” member of the middle-class (even though I’ve never really been middle-class, even in my upbringing), had minor drawbacks like getting burned by a street dealer, over all it, combined with my race, and what was then my sex and gender, gave me enormous privileges and protections that other addicts didn’t have.

(why I learned so early in life to present myself like that despite coming from things like poverty, a broken home and an often-absent navy dad is a complicated question, probably connected to things like being labeled “gifted” and saddled with those expectations, being “sensitive”, “creative” and a bit “effeminate”, and seeking the approval of teachers and authority figures as protection from bullies and compensation for the absence of that approval elsewhere)

What my friend, the InSite staffer said, was true. As much as I took it for granted, and as much as I’m sure many of those of you reading this take it for granted, I could walk into any Starbuck’s and simply assume that I would welcomed as a paying customer. There would be no atmosphere of my not being welcome. Nobody working there would assume that I’m a potential threat or “disturbance”. Nobody would ever think I’m “disturbing the customers” or “making them uncomfortable”. Nobody would try to subtly encourage me to make my visit brief. Nobody would resent my hanging out for a bit to read or write. Nobody would assume anything if I spent a long time in the bathroom… even if I what I was doing in that bathroom really was shooting up. And honestly, sometimes I really did do exactly that, with a level of comfort and confidence that comes from knowing that everyone around me was giving me the benefit of the doubt. Not having to worry that someone had gone ahead and called security after noticing I’d been in a bit “too long”.

All of that and more, though, was the constant, daily reality of the vast majority of others living at the same level of addiction, being consistently treated as, at best, an unwelcome presence and, at worst, a threat, whenever they stepped into all but a few, specific businesses and parts of town. That makes an enormous difference in how one’s daily life operates, what you can and cannot do, where you can and cannot go, and how you’ll be treated when you get there. It makes an enormous difference in your opportunities, how people perceive you, and how you’ll be treated in the event that things go bad. It makes an enormous difference in how your life actually plays out, how you’ll be treated by the legal and medical systems, by potential employers, by potential housing, by the social services presumably in place to help you. And it makes an enormous difference in self-perception. One of the things I noticed about addiction is that most addicts carry a lot of shame and self-hatred, and being consistently treated as unwelcome and hated… that makes it worse, which in turn feeds the addiction itself. How are you going to build a life outside of addiction when that life treats you as repulsive and unwelcome? Where the ONLY place you’re treated as though you belong is the Downtown Eastside?

I was a heroin addict for three years. And for many, many years before that I also lived a life well to the margins of normal, functional society. Despite the hundreds, maybe thousands, of times I’ve broken the law, despite the pretty flippant attitude I’d maintained for a long time towards it, I never ended up with a criminal record. And a lot of that is because of how police and security trusted me. They saw me as a “good kid”. They didn’t suspect me. They didn’t follow me. They didn’t find excuses to search me. At least not back then.

Despite the fact that I was exactly who they were (ostensibly) looking for.

That, right there, that is what social justice activists mean when they say “privilege” in as pure a form as you can possibly get. In a strange, almost-paradoxical way, it took losing the privilege of actually being a “functional” member of society, becoming a very severely strung-out heroin addict, to notice how much I benefited from the privilege of being seen as such. A lot like how losing my male privilege and my cis privilege has allowed me to understand a whole lot more clearly the privileges I still possess… white, binary-identified, able-bodied and still, even though I’ve lost most of those advantages I used to lean on, being able to walk and talk middle-class. “Good kid”.

It seems like the question of being welcome, of how one negotiates space, is one of the defining features of privilege, one of the most telling and immediate facets that isn’t hidden in perceptions or complex social systems, but is right there on the face of our daily lives. There is only one small segment of our society who are permitted the feeling of being welcome and safe wherever they want to go, who get to consequently feel complete ownership of the world in which they live. That segment is white, cisgender, straight, able-bodied, “functional” men. If any one of those boxes goes unticked, then you learn damn skippy where and when you are or are not welcome, and more intensely, where and when you are or are not safe. Negotiating the spaces where you “belong”, and where you’re risking your life just to be seen, and everything in-between, is a part of life… often so common, so much so, that it gets taken for granted and fades into the background to the same degree as does the privilege of not having to worry about it.

The sense of entitlement to space that emerges from that privilege can often become very evident, on a very immediate, surface level, like the indignation or even rage with which such men will often react to being explicitly excluded from a space or told they’re not welcome on account of their identity (such as being male, white, cis, straight, whatever), how they often call down fire from the heavens, exploding with fury at the “reverse racism” or “reverse sexism” or whatever, the immense persecution, of for once in their lives not having the doorman pull aside the velvet rope on their behalf.  Or how casually, non-chalantly, with no self-consciousness, they often walk into spaces that aren’t really “for” them, like , gay bars (trying to meet some chicks), trans support groups (trying to meet some chicks-with-dicks), black hair stylists (trying to meet some black chicks) or First Nations potlatches (trying to meet some first nations chicks). I have literally seen or directly heard firsthand accounts of every single one of those examples actually happening.

I have also seen cis guys get really pissed off for being told that only trans people are allowed in the trans support group, and have seen straight guys get violently pissed off for being hit on by a guy at a gay bar.

Seriously.

And yes, the idea that it’s some enormous affront to one’s personal dignity that there are spaces that are meant for people other than you is pretty hilarious for those of us who have to deal with that fact as a pretty basic, constant fact of our lives. Especially for those of us who have to deal with it as a pretty basic, constant fact that most of the whole world is meant for people other than us.

The issue of space that is welcoming, and to whom space belongs, is a lot deeper, subtler and complicated than the examples I’ve used would so far suggest. The kinds of spaces I mentioned above that belong to minority groups are far fewer, far smaller, far more specifically delineated, and far less pervasive, than those spaces that do not belong to them, that belong to the privileged.

One of the starkest aspects of sacrificing my male privilege and surface-level cis privilege was renegotiating my relationship to night. The sun going down now meant far more changes in what the outside world was then just being darker and cooler. It was now dangerous, potentially hostile, and even on the rare occasions where it felt safe, it most definitely wasn’t my own. It belonged to someone else. Night-space is men’s space. Explicitly or not, this is something probably every women knows, and learns to negotiate. And being trans definitely intensifies the feeling that I have no claim to the streets after dark. I’m Other, a potential target, and have to be very, very mindful of my surroundings, where men stride confidently, obliviously, down the road.

Often their body language will directly communicate their regard for me as a trespasser or tentatively permitted guest in their territory.

(The cops, by the way… they no longer assume I’m not doing anything criminal. Trans woman after dark with a cigarette = suspected sex worker)

One of the sad truths of this factor of privilege is how much we’ll often internalize these ideas where we do and do not belong, to the point of it becoming a very common factor in victim-blaming. “She was walking around after dark in that neighbourhood? She was asking for it, and if she didn’t want it, she should’ve known better”, etc.

The thing is, often the spaces where we’re told to “expect” being victimized or harrassed or treated as unwelcome, in contrast to the spaces where we’re supposedly safe and fine, is often a completely false conception that only really emerges when we want to find explanations for something shitty happening. I’ve noticed this is particularly often true in the idea of what is or isn’t “queer-friendly” space, and even more so, “trans-friendly” space. It’s often assumed that the latter will be true of anywhere that appears to be gay-friendly, or anywhere that’s middle or upper class, anywhere that’s “liberal” or “left wing”, anywhere expensive… but that just isn’t the actual reality.

A few months ago I ended up being very openly ridiculed and harassed in a McDonald’s (on Commercial Drive, one of the supposedly “liberal” and “queer-friendly” areas of Vancouver), an incident I wrote about a bit here on this blog. A friend of mine discussed the event on her Facebook, and it quickly became the subject of some pretty crass victim-blaming on the part of some pretty smug trans women. The idea was that that’s the kind of thing I should “expect” by going to McDonald’s for my coffee-and-a-muffin. There’s an obvious classist dimension there, of course… especially considering the fact that the reason I was at McDonald’s was because I literally only had $3 and that was the only place I could afford coffee and breakfast. Starbuck’s just wasn’t an option. But it wouldn’t have mattered. Starbuck’s is also cis space.

My friend, the one who originally mentioned the incident on Facebook, told me about an experience she’d had early in her transition, when she was playing music at a very upscale, very buddhist-hippy-good-karma-oriented, very “liberal”, very expensive Thai restaurant in the middle-class neighbourhood Kitsilano (where I now live… a neighbourhood where, quite tellingly, and quite on-topic, I consistently feel far less safe and less welcome than I did in the working-class, immigrant, and red-light neighbourhood, Collingwood, where I used to live). A waitress that evening repeatedly addressed her as “sir”, despite the fact that she was wearing a dress and quite clearly presenting female, despite the fact that she repeatedly requested she stop, despite the fact that her friends also asked her to stop… but the waitress, throughout the evening, kept “accidentally” misgendering her. My friend wrote up the incident on some website that does restaurant reviews, only to be met with an extremely long, hostile and patronizing letter from the restaurants owner and manager, the “liberal” buddhist, in which he misgendered her too, defended the waitress’ actions, and said that if she’s too “thin-skinned” to deal with being called “sir” she probably isn’t emotionally strong and mentally stable enough to deal with transitioning.

The spaces we regard as welcoming and safe, and the ideas we internalize about where we’re “supposed” to be, those ideas that keep us in our place, keep anyone from having to deal with the uncomfortable fact of our reality and thereby keep anyone’s perspectives from actually changing… even those ideas betray us. There’s a level of system justification in that. So long as we feel like if we’re good, if we stick to the places we’re “supposed” to be, if we don’t get out of line, then we’ll be just fine, we’ll be treated alright… that myth allows us to feel that much less angry with the fact that we feel excluded, unwelcome and unsafe in the first place, even in locations that are claim to be public, that should be public, that shouldn’t end up “belonging” to any particular social class. It’s exactly as dangerous a myth, with the exact same role of helping maintain the structures of privilege and having us police ourselves into compliance, as every other notion of the roles we’re “supposed” to play, the actions we’re “supposed” to take, the way we’re “supposed” to behave, as defined by the privileged, by those who already control the system.

And just like no matter how “good” we are by the standards of the privileged class we’ll never be “good” enough, they’ll just keep raising the bar, so to does it not really matter how much we stick to those spaces where it’s suggested we’ll be safe and belong. Those spaces will always shrink as much as they can around us.

It doesn’t help anything for us to simply ignore the realities of where we’re welcome and safe, and where we’re not. Self-care first, after all. None of us need to risk our lives to make a point. But we do need to remember what this is we’re dealing with and why it is, and as much as we can avoid it without risking ourselves, we shouldn’t simply cede ownership of pervasive space, space that should be for all of us, to privileged classes, and we shouldn’t uncritically buy into this system to the extent that we blame victims for transgressing the invisible fences built around us.

These fences are conceptual. They’re built of violence and force and money, partly, but mostly they’re built of fear of that violence and force, of shame, self-hatred, marginalization, of suspicious glances and terse waiters, of poor service, of harassment, of stares, of ridicule, of finding ways to make it clear we’re not welcome. As said, conceptual.

And that means they can be removed. First, though, we have to learn to see and understand them.

41 comments

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  1. 1
    rq

    Thumbs up. Once again, lots of food for thought. :) Thank you.

  2. 2
    TBS

    An interesting post Natalie, and this is an issue that has been of concern to me of late, I have some thoughts from my perspective as a cis, hetero, white, straight, upper middle class (by upbringing) man.

    I seldom think of the idea of needing to negotiate spaces at all, and can’t remember the last time I was concerned with my safety in any serious way based on where I was. I completely agree categorically that this is a huge piece of privilege, one I just get based on the way I look and act, and one that I am usually completely oblivious of. I’m not that concerned walking most places at night; and stop for gas, or walk into a bar or restaurant in unfamiliar places, without giving a ton of thought to what is on the other side of the door.

    My Fiancee and I just moved from an east coast city to the midwest. I find I am a little more negotiating spaces here, just in that there are situations where in the East I would be “us” and here am “other”.

    The larger thing is it is the first time I’ve been living with R, my fiancee, and she is trans. This weekend, for instance, there are ads all over TV for a big wedding show in our area. R *really* wants to go to this show; I could see her look up from her book every time this came on TV. I saw this and offered to buy us tickets, and she said she didn’t want to go at all.

    Talking, she does want to go, but is afraid to, as she might be read, and it turn sour, and that would be not only a bad scene, but a bad memory associated with the wedding. I should have known this, but it really didn’t occur to me. I just figured, wedding show? Obstacles: buy tickets, find parking, PROFIT

    And this *is* something I should have picked up on right away. I do have to think some about R’s perspective when I plan somewhere to go, that it is “safe”, and do have another layer that a boyfriend of a cis woman may not, her getting read and a negative response, on that.

    So questions on negotiating space, what we are talking about right? I will say these things, and your post, have made me look back at some other interactions I have had in a negative light for my conduct.

    I agree, for example, that gay bars, ethnic spaces, etc… have an important role, and generally as a white hetero cis male etc.. (can I get an abbreviation of all of that that isn’t just A$$hole?), I’ve walked into many of these places with a sense of entitlement, not negotiating space, but more occupying.

    But not, really, looking to get laid specifically. Natalie, some straight cis white men don’t always have a sexual agenda in mind. I know I almost never do. Doesn’t mean I haven’t acted privledged, but please don’t tar me with that sin.

    The thing is, in many of these spaces, I have had a nice time. Particularly in gay bars I didn’t realize were gay bars, where I got hit on, but didn’t get upset, irate, or my boxers in a twist about it. The rub is, these are places where I actually met some people in transition, spoke with them, and chalked it up to an interesting night.

    Later, though, when a girl I was dating came out to me as trans, I was able to respond intelligently. Happy I did, we are now engaged. I’d like to say it would have been my reaction anyway, I think I’m a good person. But I’m not sure, a privledged upbringing is often closeted as well, and, well, my upbringing didn’t have a lot good to say about difference.

    My Grandfather told me a true gentleman’s goal in manners is to try and make everyone around him more comfortable. I would say the flip side of privledge is in the above situations I would feel I had a much greater burden of civility and receptiveness than usual.

    Other than that I’m unsure what I can say about this subject. For one, I can’t redeem what I have in this area for convenient tokens for others to use. I am sure that some would say as a straight hetero cis white man there are certain spaces I should avoid, and would certainly if it is made clear. It often isn’t and I do think it unrealistic that a hetero man never walks into a gay bar, or if he does he is looking for hetero sex (somehow?).

    I’m interested to hear other people’s comments. I’ll try to get R to the wedding show, but park near the exit.

    Best wishes,

    TBS

    1. 2.1
      Natalie Reed

      Oh, I wasn’t using the sexual agenda as what I think is running through the minds of every guy who goes into those spaces, just as a particularly egregious example of the level of entitlement that may be involved. I also thought it was funny that all four of those examples are true stories.

      1. TBS

        Didn’t really think you were, just making sure.

        I do think it is a conundrum for “safe(er)” spaces, though. Yeah, there are always jerks looking to get laid.., problems, etc, but where does safe become self defeating? From stories from some of my gay friends there are gay bars that become cattier than, well something with many cats. I expect it is the same in groups anywhere.

        1. Natalie Reed

          …yeah, absolutely. And certainly trying to keep trans spaces trans can very very very quickly become an exercise in gender-policing, “not trans enough” / transier-than-thou, and internalized cissexism. But it’s almost a good thing that we get the opportunity to address internal problems instead of external ones for a change, given how often we’re stuck just trying to survive.

          1. TBS

            There can be even crazy wierdness. R and I went to a trans conference, well we give off cis couple vibes, but she walking about with me got, unread? What is the opposite of read? A couple of times. She had to tell one booth holder twice, well, yes I am trans..

            interested to see the comments on this topic. I am sensitive to it given the ginormous difference in going places me alone vs. Me w/R feels like safety wise.

      2. ischemgeek

        I’ve seen that. It’s such a problem that our local gay bar is no longer a safe space because there’s such an influx of straight dudebros looking to harrass and grope women. So it, like all the other dance bars in the city, are on the list of places I don’t go because I know if I do go, I will be sexually harrassed and probably sexually assaulted with non-consentual groping, and I have zero confidence that the people who are supposed to deal with such things will deal with them appropriately (since the prevailing attitude among bouncers, staff and police varies between, “If you go to a dance club, you should expect guys to be frisky.” and “It’s a gay bar, that stuff doesn’t happen here”).

    2. 2.2
      northstargirl

      What you wrote about R and the wedding show reminds me of a conversation I was having with my best friend a few weeks ago. He came to know me after I transitioned, but we have what amounts to a brother/sister relationship and talk very openly about anything and everything. During that conversation I was telling him similar things about how there are places I will avoid (and sometimes that will include public restrooms) because of the very same thing you wrote about that concerned R about the wedding show.

      No matter how well I may be treated there’s always the worry in the back of my mind that somebody somewhere will come up, be a wildcard and ruin the whole thing, or that I’ll be in a women’s room and a child will do the “Mommy, is that a man or a woman?” thing. It’s this feeling I have that when people see me, they’re sizing me up; that wouldn’t be so bad but I never know how they will respond. Early in transition I had a couple incidents with hostile types, and they left scars.

      My friend never has to deal with this, nor does my husband. But it’s a fact of my life, and a cause of some dread on occasion. I deal with it, and I don’t let it stop me from doing most everything I want/need to do, but there are a few things that, because of it, are still a bridge too far.

      The very best of luck to you and R, by the way.

  3. 3
    Miri

    This post puts me in mind of the way that when I go out to certain places, I get told by my family, “oh, that’s a good area, you should be safe there, there’ll be no need for you to worry”, and yet, when I get there, I feel anything but safe, but rather out of place and scrutinised. And interestingly, it is the more upmarket places that are more discomforting. It’s curious to think that places I once found threatening, inner city areas that are somewhat seedy, I can imagine to be welcoming, or at least less threatening before, because they are areas that are seen as belonging to queers…

    Another interesting thing I’ve noticed, which is in contrast to your experience, is my relationship to the night. I never found the night a space that belonged to me, or to be safe. I’ve always been on edge at night, constantly aware of everything and everyone around me, feeling unwelcome… I don’t know, perhaps this is due to being autistic, and having a body language and manner that immediately marks me as other, no matter how “normal” I might have appeared in purely physical terms…

  4. 4
    Kevin, Youhao Huo Mao

    There is only one small segment of our society who are permitted the feeling of being welcome and safe wherever they want to go, who get to consequently feel complete ownership of the world in which they live. That segment is white, cisgender, straight, able-bodied, “functional” men.

    This is the most frustrating thing for me, and I know it’ll be lost when I start to transition. I’m visibly a white, cisgender, straight, able-bodied, functional man. You pick me out of a group, and that’s what you’ll see about me and how I carry myself. Internally I’m a Native American, transgender, and pansexual. I have often-times nearly crippling back and hip problems (at 28, that really sucks.) I also have crippling and crazy-inducing panic attacks (I was literally about half a block away from screaming at people in Vegas this week because there were so many people.)

    When I transition, I definitely know those visible protections I have will go away. When I stop looking male, I’m damn sure that people will start to notice the little hints of not being quite able to carry myself well, the little hints of panic and anxiety in my voice and my actions. They’ll probably also start to notice the Native American aspects of me (my white skin really is all they see, but I’ve got some definitely Native features.) The only things keeping me in a ‘welcome’ situation are lies.

    I want to stop lying though – to myself and everyone – and in becoming honest with the world, I’m going to lose my safety in it.

    said that if she’s too “thin-skinned” to deal with being called “sir” she probably isn’t emotionally strong and mentally stable enough to deal with transitioning.

    This is disgusting. That’s the kind of behavior that causes some people to go to suicide.

  5. 5
    A. Person

    I’ve been thinking about the idea of being “good” for a while now, but really haven’t been able to articulate my thoughts and feelings.

    I guess I’m still stuck on where to find the courage or the strength to challenge those power/privilege imbalances especially if being “good” was drummed into you.

  6. 6
    HappiestSadist, Repellent Little Martyr

    Holy shit. This is an amazing post.

  7. 7
    Dalillama

    Thought provoking piece for me, Natalie. I have buckets of privilege, being a white, largely neurotypical cis man who passes for straight most of the time, and I present myself like an educated upper middle class person. Ever since I’ve realized how much privilege that grants me that others don’t have I’ve been outraged. I walk down whatever streets I feel like at whatever time of day or night I choose, and I feel no fear for my physical safety unless there’s some really bad drivers around, and as far as I’m concerned everyone else ought to be able to as well. There are spaces I avoid because I’m uncomfortable and sometimes physically nervous there, mostly certain types of straight bars, but overall, I get to feel safe, and it pisses me off to no end that so many other people are denied that. Obviously, I’m not comparing my own rage to the depths of feeling that are engendered by being in that situation, but still.

  8. 8
    That Guy

    One of my first insights into privilege was that as a C-H-W-Man I would view night quite literally as “when it gets darker and cooler”, and where I’m from, we get lots of long nights.

    In one of my more serious relationships- I clocked that my partner and other women like her don’t have that option- to them the night-time city streets were dangerous.
    this disconnect between something I romanticised and something that they really concerned about is perhaps the clearest example I can think of where men live life on ‘easy mode’.

  9. 9
    cami

    Thank you for this piece Natalie. I’ve been struggling with issues surrounding privilege like everyday lately cuz I’m not read as a ‘good kid’. The world keeps telling me, over and over, that I’m a bad, dirty kid. I have been clean for 13 weeks now and I’ve managed to hold onto $1200 that I would have otherwise spent on drugs and alcohol. I’m literally clinging to this stack cuz I want to get off the street. Only now that I can afford to rent an apartment I’m finding that nobody wants me as a tenant and all the landlords here want me to submit to a background check ($30-$40) at my own expense. Your piece also reminds me of a couple of years ago when I processed a legal name change. The last step was to go to court and present a FBI background check and tell the judge why I wanted to change my name. The other ten, or so, people who were there that day gave the judge a single sheet of paper that was their background info and mine was like twenty pages long. Having a sketchy past not only makes functioning in society difficult but it’s fucking humiliating as well. This comment is too long; I really liked this essay and I want to share it with some folks I know who need to hear this stuff. You say things better than I can and I’m grateful to you for sharing your thoughts.

  10. 10
    jacobvfox

    I tick all the privilege boxes (I even golf!), and it is for that reason and others that I appreciate your willingness to discuss your experiences, your ability to communicate your perceptions, and the thoughtful and intelligent manner in which you write. Listening to you makes me a better person. Thanks Natalie!

  11. 11
    SG

    It seems like the question of being welcome, of how one negotiates space, is one of the defining features of privilege, one of the most telling and immediate facets that isn’t hidden in perceptions or complex social systems, but is right there on the face of our daily lives. There is only one small segment of our society who are permitted the feeling of being welcome and safe wherever they want to go, who get to consequently feel complete ownership of the world in which they live. That segment is white, cisgender, straight, able-bodied, “functional” men. If any one of those boxes goes unticked, then you learn damn skippy where and when you are or are not welcome, and more intensely, where and when you are or are not safe. Negotiating the spaces where you “belong”, and where you’re risking your life just to be seen, and everything in-between, is a part of life… often so common, so much so, that it gets taken for granted and fades into the background to the same degree as does the privilege of not having to worry about it.

    [...]

    One of the starkest aspects of sacrificing my male privilege and surface-level cis privilege was renegotiating my relationship to night. The sun going down now meant far more changes in what the outside world was then just being darker and cooler. It was now dangerous, potentially hostile, and even on the rare occasions where it felt safe, it most definitely wasn’t my own. It belonged to someone else. Night-space is men’s space. Explicitly or not, this is something probably every women knows, and learns to negotiate. And being trans definitely intensifies the feeling that I have no claim to the streets after dark. I’m Other, a potential target, and have to be very, very mindful of my surroundings, where men stride confidently, obliviously, down the road.

    I am very close to starting transition, and thinking about things like this are very close to frightening me into not starting. Right now, I am perceived as a “white, cisgender, straight, able-bodied, ‘functional’” man. I have never consciously tried to use any of my privileges, but I know that most privilege exists regardless of whether I use it or want it. I worry that if I do transition, I won’t be able to adjust, and I’ll just be worn down by sexism, cissexism, and heterosexism. I worry that all of these will be magnified for me if I don’t pass (I am 6’3″, so the bar for me to pass is higher).

    I often feel like I am making some sort of mechanical cost-benefit analysis in weighing my ability to continue to be male and the risks I’d face if I transition. It really gets me down.

  12. 12
    Pen

    I walk around at night and in lonely places all the time. I feel strongly about the fact that public space is my space and I’m taking it when it suits me. Obviously, I’ve been made well aware by society at large that I shouldn’t. In practice, I’ve noticed the men I encounter do one of three things:

    a) ignore me.

    b) subtly let me know they don’t intend to be a problem, by a very casual acknowledgment like a nod or whatever greeting is usual in the culture, or choosing a trajectory that’s obviously not coming towards me.

    c) creep me out by staring like they’re wondering what to do next or moving as if they were coming towards me.

    I like option b) best by far. It says ‘I see you there, and that’s fine’. Maybe the situation for trans people is different, because of the whole question of ‘passing’ or not? If you pass, people don’t see you and for some people that’s the goal? I must admit that if I discover someone is trans either because they tell me or I notice, I don’t really know how to convey that ‘I see you, that’s fine’. Any ideas?

    1. 12.1
      Natalie Reed

      Well, tbh, you ideally don’t convey that you see it, whether you’re fine with it or not. Because it isn’t relevant enough to need to be acknowledged. What trans people want, as a general rule, is to be acknowledged, accepted and treated as our gender. That’s all. We don’t usually need or want our being trans to be acknowledged until when we’re comfortable with bringing it up ourselves, at our own time.

      And really, most of the time, we care far more about you seeing us as our presented gender than about whether or not you’re “fine” with our being trans. Honestly, a whole lot of us would usually prefer to NOT be reminded that we even are trans, that that’s a thing people are seeing and considering, that’s a “big deal”, and that they’re making a decision about whether or not they’re “fine” with it. That could easily serve as nothing but an unwelcome reminder of how many people AREN’T fine with it, and how much our safety is dependent on cis people’s fickle and unpredictable reactions…which is to say, not in our own control, which is a really awful, disenfranchising, disempowering feeling. It’s better that it just not really enter to things until we engage it, or pretty explicitly invite it.

      1. Pen

        Mmm, that’s what I suspected. So it’s not an analagous situation. Well thanks…

  13. 13
    veganatheist01

    Nights are men’s spaces?

    I’ve usually felt quite comfortable walking somewhere at night, occasionally even more so than during daytime – and if I ever felt threatened, it was because I was alone and others were there in groups (male, female, or mixed).

    1. 13.1
      Natalie Reed

      “Alone” is sort of one the assumed conditions of what I’m describing.

      Where do you live?

    2. 13.2
      Bia

      Wait… wait… I thought the night was made for lovers!

      1. im

        For the greater good, we shall make it so.

  14. 14
    beth

    Excellent post. Let me echo what jacobvfox said: Listening to you makes me a better person. Thanks Natalie!

  15. 15
    Christianne

    I remember the exact moment when I realized that my cisgender male privilege was gone. I go to a lot of movies, as you well know. Because of the intensity of my moviegoing, I often go to movies alone. I’ve done this for my entire life. Shortly after I transitioned, I found myself at a Scorsese movie by myself . This was late in its run and the multiplex had tucked it away in one of the out of the way screens where movies past their sell-by date are warehoused before hitting video. The auditorium was out of the way, not well seen by the rest of the theater, and mostly empty. There was me and there were the other four members of the audience. They were all men. (Scorsese movies skew to a mostly male audience.) One of them was giving me the hairy eyeball as I took my seat. He and his buddy could be heard having a chuckle at my expense before the movie started up. Had they been more aggressive, I would have been in a very bad situation. As the movie unspooled, I realized that I had put myself at risk without even thinking about it. I was clinging to my cis dude privilege of going where I want without being hassled and I was finding that the world was not accommodating me any more. It was kind of a shock. I still go to movies alone, but I’m more careful about when and where I do it. I’m more careful about going anywhere alone at night now, actually. I’m fortunate enough to have enough “passing” privilege (can we find a better phrase for this?) that I’m rarely hassled for being trans, but you better believe I’m hassled for being a woman. It’s very annoying most of the time, and very alarming some of the time.

    1. 15.1
      Natalie Reed

      (can we find a better phrase for this?)

      Lately I’ve been going with “conditional cis privilege”.

    2. 15.2
      northstargirl

      Similar story for me. One day not long after I transitioned, I went to a big college town the next state over to spend the day browsing in shops, buying books and just having a good time. I went to lunch at a favorite sandwich shop across from campus. There weren’t a lot of people in there, but there were three guys in their 20s, real manly types, and they took an interest in watching me. As I walked past on the way to my table, they stared at me and the one closest to me looked straight at me and did this weird “I’m gonna get you” thing at me with his arms, and he and his mates had a little laugh about it. I pretended to shrug it off, but inside it rattled me more than a little. That was, I believe, the first time it really hit me that the world was now different, and I needed to be careful.

  16. 16
    mx. punk

    i love this article; it articulates some things i’ve been thinking about lately.

  17. 17
    Bia

    Food for thought Natalie, thanks for this.

    I suppose even when I was a kid I was always going into dangerous areas. And I’d like to point out that in the U.S. at least, there definitely are spaces where white people are not welcome. I’m not even kidding about this, and I’m not refuting privilege or complaining or anything sill like that. I’m just saying there are dangerous places to be a white person. This may not be true in Canada I don’t know but it’s definitely true down here.

    1. 17.1
      Natalie Reed

      It’s true, yes. But white people tend to often walk into those spaces and feel entitled to them anyway, or feel incredibly shocked and angry that such spaces exist, that there are places that aren’t for them, and will often explicitly refer to these spaces as “bad”, “blight”, “decay”, etc. Also, these spaces aren’t created as a process of privilege, they’re in fact a byproduct of the processes of oppression (ghettoization, segregation and apartheid, whether overt, through legacy or through subtle “backdoor” mechanisms). The “non-white neighbourhoods” are salient precisely because everywhere else “belongs” to white people.

      Also, while places where white people aren’t entirely welcome do exist, they’re very rare, and I think their existence is often greatly exaggerated in the minds of white people and projected onto spaces where they absolutely still have their power and ownership of the space intact. Which is to say, a lot of the times a white person feels they’re “not welcome” in a space, or that that space belongs to someone else, or that they’re somehow in danger being there, that’s much more a byproduct of exaggerated, irrational fear, fed by racism, than any actual difference in who has the relative power in that space. As an example, I’m guessing every white person has heard friends or relatives talk about accidentally straying into a “bad” neighbourhood and start claiming that “they almost got shot!”, describing the “terrifying” experience as though their lives were actually at stake, when in fact they were never in any danger whatsoever (other than in danger of, you know, catching a glimpse of what the world looks like outside their bubble of privilege and security).

      I remember once about five years ago, I was on a crowded, almost-full bus heading to my job in Virginia Beach. I looked up and happened to notice that I was the only white person aboard. It was a strange, disconcerting experience, but it did hit me that that’s sort of what anyone belonging to a minority has to deal with as a regular, constant aspect of their lives. Being salient, noticeable, different, other.

      Like… now it’s an extremely rare experience for me to ever not be the only trans person on a bus, no matter how crowded and full, or what neighbourhood I’m going through.

  18. 18
    Beth

    It seems to me that you erect your own fences. You judge everyone. You judge your college, the staff at McDonald’s, the waitress, the restaurant owner, your dealers, cops, transwomen FB commenters, white people, cis people. All that in just one post.

    You aren’t in any position to judge anyone and I doubt if anyone much cares about your judgments. You’d be happier if you spent more time learning to understand others and help them. Then the fences may come down.

  19. 19
    Nerd Alert!

    I’m CIS white female, and I am genuinely trying to understand transgender issues. Your blog was suggested as a good place to start.

    I’m curious if you feel that there are any places that SHOULD “belong to minority groups.” For example, should there be places for CIS women only? I’m mainly thinking of the Michigan Womyn’s Festival, or maybe a rape support group. What if women are triggered by discussions of penises, should a trans person go there and talk about her penis?

    I’m a new reader, so if you have addressed this elsewhere, Let me know.

    1. 19.1
      Natalie Reed

      Um… since when are cis women the minority group relative to trans women?!

      And really, you think trans women just LOVE wandering into rape support groups and talking about their penises?!?

      Or that they can’t, you know, ALSO be victims of rape?

      I kinda want to say “GTFO” here, and strongly doubt how “genuinely” you’re trying to understand this stuff. If your interest is genuine, please try to think these things through a bit more before asking, and think through the implications, because frankly… those kinds of questions shouldn’t even be asked, given the assumptions they’re based on, let alone asked in a trans-safe space.

      1. John Small Berries

        I’m the person who sent “Nerd Alert!” to your blog, because I’ve found your posts educational myself, but now I’m kind of regretting that I did.

        You began your post by mentioning the process of understanding privilege, power, and social dynamics – which she indicated was a process she was just beginning; yet you went off on her as though she should already have a complete understanding of those things.

        Ironic that, in a post titled “Being Welcome”, you went out of your way to make her feel as unwelcome as possible – for trying to learn, but not knowing enough to phrase her words in a way that pleased you. (Not to mention twisting her words – where did she say that cis women were a “minority group relative to trans women”?)

        1. Natalie Reed

          I was really trying my best to not unload on her the way I initially wanted to…note how I said I had WANTED to say “GTFO” but was trying to give her the benefit of the doubt that she really was genuine in the desire to better understand. But yeah, her questions suggested a lot of transphobic assumptions, and I do find that upsetting. I wasn’t trying to deliberately make her feel unwelcome, but I did want her to try to do a bit more reading and thinking before asking those kinds of question. I wasn’t twisting her words at all in regards to that. Her first statement, asking if it was “okay for minority groups to exclude majorities”, using as an example MichFest’s trans-exclusion policy, was DIRECTLY positioning trans women as the “majority” oppressor relative to cis women. And frankly, the fear, exemplified in her questions, of trans women “invading” spaces that are “for women” (read “for cis women” in this line of thinking) to do things like “talk about their penises” in spaces where that would be triggering is just…well…it’s BLATANTLY transphobic. As in it’s a completely irrational, groundless, dehumanizing fear of trans women that has absolutely no basis in reality. I would love for Nerd Alert to be able to learn and grow and understand these issues, but it doesn’t change the fact that the questions were really offensive and based in highly transphobic assumptions. If her desire to learn and understand IS as genuine as you’ve both said, then she can take this as a lesson in being more careful about the assumptions and implications in the questions they ask, how to take more care in asking such questions, and to take more care to try to read and think things through a bit more BEFORE asking that kind of thing. If, however, this is “GRRR! The trans woman was mean to me when all I wanted was to have her give me a free, private, specific, personalized education in how she is oppressed and misunderstood by me, people like me, and a culture of dehumanization! So now I’m abandoning my interest entirely and will just go right on believing whatever assumptions I’ve already made!” then, well, the desire to understand trans issues better was probably never really genuine in the first place. I hope, however, that that’s not the case.

          1. Nerd Alert!

            Natalie, I apologize that my writing sounded accusatory. I certainly did not think you were being mean, nor did I expect a “personal education” from you. As I said, I have just started reading about trans issues, because I recently read about the issues with the Michigan Womyn’s Fest; it was the first time I had heard about problems between radfems and trans people, so that’s why I asked about it specifically. I thought this blog post might be the place to ask questions. I will certainly be much, MUCH more careful about posting questions in the future.

          2. Natalie Reed

            Thank you for your understanding, and I’m sorry if I came across as overly harsh. It’s just given how much your questions reflected certain very common transphobic myths and arguments, I had a strongly negative reaction (I’ve also had a VERY stressful and emotionally difficult week, for a variety of reasons) and it was also difficult to tell whether or not you were coming from a genuine desire to learn. Anyway… I have written a lot about those issues, like tensions between certain kinds of rad-fems and trans women, MichFest, etc. and I’m sure you should be able to find a lot about that stuff amongst my past posts. I’m sorry I don’t have a proper archive list set up yet, but I’m working on that. In the meantime, there’s a search feature, the archives can be accessed chronologically, and the “essential reeding” list in the right hand menus on the main page directs to a few of my posts that were either particularly popular and well-received, or that I regard as especially helpful for newcomers to this blog and the issues I deal with. Take care.

    2. 19.2
      mx. punk

      (natalie: i hope i’m not stepping on your toes. i want to go into more detail than you did, but please let me know if i’m taking up your space.)

      having a safe space for women makes sense; women are oppressed specifically because of their gender (by men). it’s healthy for them to be able to get away from their oppressors.

      having a safe space for trans* women also makes sense; trans* women are oppressed because of their gender (by men) and because they’re trans* (by cis people, including cis women). it’s healthy for them to be able to get away from their oppressors.

      cis women, on the other hand, aren’t oppressed for being cis. they’re oppressed for being WOMEN (and potentially for being poc, pwd, poor, etc.). when we create cis-only “safe spaces” for cis women , we aren’t really creating safe spaces. we’re creating exclusive spaces where oppressors (cis people) get to openly exclude the people they’re privileged over (trans* people). this is something that happens everywhere without us bothering to create special places for it; trans* people get excluded all the time.

      so, no, i don’t think cis women should get to specifically exclude trans* women from their spaces.

      1. Nerd Alert!

        Thank you, mx. punk. Your explanation makes sense. Sorry to have upset you, Natalie. I will GTFO now.

        1. hall-of-rage

          Natalie’s already responded, and mx. punk gave really a great explanation, and sure, doing the Essential Reeding will make you way better equipped to ask questions. But some advice to how to be able to ask when you have trouble finding answers, without it going so badly:

          If you have heard only one side of a story, you might want to briefly quote the ideas you’ve heard about and mention in what kind of places you’ve heard them, rather than paraphrasing them so that they sound like your own. That way, if they’re transphobic ideas people have heard a lot before, someone will just point you to a link or explain the issues, rather than think you’re making no effort or perhaps trying to spread bad ideas.

          You ran into one of the worst clumps of transphobic shit by “radical feminists”, that comes up over and over again, and spreads a lot. Googling “natalie reed michigan womyn’s” gets you 13 myths and misconceptions about trans women, where you’ll see how trans women are excluded from many “feminist” groups; the post is on the Essential Reeding list and it’s great. For further context: there is a truly horrendous idea in The Transsexual Empire about how trans women, in altering their own bodies and presentations, are raping cis women, and a lot of radfems’ talk about trans women has echoes of this. I don’t like to go into that but if you want to understand trans misogyny coming from cis feminists, well, track down some trans feminists’ explanation (e.g. read Susan Stryker).

  1. 20
    Privilege | An actuary walks into a(bar)...

    [...] this post by Natalie Reed on privilege made me think about the experiences in my life that helped me [...]

  2. 21
    reader question: i’m a fucking grue/troll. help?! | rainbowgenderpunk

    [...] straight white male: the lowest difficulty setting there is, and what is privilege?.  being welcome and sacrificing privilege are probably relevant, [...]

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