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Privileges and Decoys: Part One

I recently had an exchange with someone remarking that using specialized terminologies like “cisgender”, “privilege” and “intersectionality” can have the consequence of creating an echo chamber. Given that the only people who will comprehend what you actually mean by these terms, she argued, you’re limiting your audience to people who already are on the same page as you.

This seemed totally not true to my experience.

Maybe as much as half of everything I write is at least partly based in deconstructing such specialized concepts, or investigating mistaken assumptions about them. To challenge or deconstructed specific ideas within specific communities, spaces or discourses, like feminism or the trans community, it helps a lot to be able to address those concepts specifically, and not have to flit about with defining them for audience’s who aren’t yet familiar. After all, an audience who isn’t familiar with the concepts of “gender dysphoria”, “detransition” or “passability” aren’t the audience I’m speaking to when addressing misconceptions about or problematic elements of those concepts.

And knowing a term does not necessarily mean you understand it.

Take for instance the idea of intersectionality. Someone commenting on the video panel I did with Crommunist, The Anti-Intellect, Robert Reece, Jamila Bey, Edwin Hodge and Paul Fidalgo stated that until seeing the panel, they’d been under the assumption that “intersectionality” simply meant to compare and contrast various forms of oppression and marginalization with the hopes of coming to new insights about them. But that’s not really the key point of looking into intersectionality… it’s much more about investigating how different forms of oppression, marginalization and privilege relate to one another, and how they overlap to create new, specific experiences.

In the video I also tried to address an even more common misunderstanding of intersectionality. In attempting to understand what occurs when someone is positioned at the intersection of multiple lines of oppression, a lot of people adopt a fairly simplistic idea that these various oppressions simply stack on top of one another. Such as that a black gay man has to deal with homophobia AND racism. People might also imagine privileges operating similarly, with the more different “kinds” of privilege you have -like male privilege, white privilege, straight privilege, cis privilege- all stacking up too; and maybe that all your oppressions and all your privileges sort of balance against each other, like stones being dropped into dishes on the ends of a scale, to ultimately determine some kind of overall quotient of privilege and oppression.

But it doesn’t really work like that. Intersectionality modifies the ways in which privileges and oppressions operate. They relate to each other and interact to create wholly unique forms of marginalization or oppression, or make a privilege operate in a different manner than it normally does, or one marginalized aspect of your identity removes certain advantages a privileged aspect of your identity normally entails. These relationships are very nuanced, and very complex, and there simply aren’t any basic, general statements you can make about them.

This is the reason intersectionality is so key to the discourse of privilege and oppression. Because it creates an extremely diverse range of unique experiences relative to the (comparably) smaller range of factors in play. The racism and homophobia experienced by a black gay man are different than the racism experienced by straight black men or the homophobia experienced by white gay men. The experiences of cissexist medical gatekeeping for a trans woman with disabilities are going to be different than the experiences of an able-bodied trans woman attempting to navigate that same system. And the manner in which a woman’s reproductive and sexual choices are going to be policed by her society will be directly affected by her economic class, and her choice of work.

As a more in-depth example: trans-misogyny, while directly a result of more generalized sexism and misogyny, and existing at the intersection of misogyny and cissexism, and ultimately inextricable from the overall relationships between misogyny, binarism, oppositional sexism, heterosexism, femmephobia, and cissexism, operates as a discrete, independent form of oppression, with specific qualities, producing specific experiences that trans women have to endure.

Recently I was sexually assaulted as a McDonald’s. I had gone in, ordered a coffee and muffin, and asked to use the bathroom while they prepared my order. While heading towards the bathroom, an older drunk male customer called out “male bathroom! male bathroom!” (the bathrooms were, in fact, unisex). I was in a sort of punchy take-no-shit kinda mood, so after I finished peeing and got my food, I approached him and asked “what were you saying on my way into the bathroom?”. He then got up, got VERY VERY close to me, saying “how you doing tonight, ‘chick’? You feelin’ good, ‘chick?”, and then grabbed my hand. I pushed him away. He then got angry, swooped around me, and started doing a little dance while grabbing his genitals, and with his other arm grabbed me around the waist and pulled me towards him. No one was doing anything to intervene, and while this was going on, he continued mocking and invalidating my gender.

I struggled away, closed the door in his face, and began walking off. As I got to the corner, I heard him stagger back out of the McDonald’s and began shouting out “it’s a maaannn!!! it’s a maaaannn!!!”

I was being sexually assaulted (as a woman) with a man exerting sexual power over me (a woman) to threaten and intimidate me and put me back in my place (as a woman), but the confrontation was based in an effort to invalidate my gender and describe me as a man, he used the misgendering as a further means of exerting power and humiliating / intimidating me, and it’s likely that the fact of my being trans played a key role in the staff and patrons’ collective choice to not intervene, and be complicit in the assault.

In short, it was an intersection of misogyny and cissexism that produced a unique and uniquely effective means of marginalization and intimidation. It was a hostile act of trans-misogyny, not simply sexism and transphobia stacked on top of eachother. This is the nature of intersectionality. Different oppressions modifying each other, and usually amplifying each other, by means of their proximity, and producing new oppressions.

A related, equally complicated, but lesser talked about (and requiring considerably more care to talk about), is the fact that privilege is also modified by its intersections with marginalization and oppression. How a privilege normally operates can, in specific contexts, become very different, sometimes radically so.

Male privilege, for instance, does not mean the same thing for a trans man that it does for a cis man. A trans man certainly does have male privilege, but may not have many of the advantages usually associated with it, such as the benefits inherent to what normative male-socialization offers that normative female-socialization does not. They may likewise lack certain medical benefits, may be effected by numerous laws targeting women’s reproduction, and may not be able to assume most benefits cis men receive from being culturally positioned as the “default” within the dynamics of sex and gender.

Able-bodied privilege is something else that, in a trans context, doesn’t mean the full extent of advantages it normally offers. For instance, trans people do not have the benefit of being able to assume that any given doctor will understand their body and understand how to treat them. It’s not uncommon for trans people to be barred from medical access as a consequence… and trans people’s access to non-transitioned-related medicine is actually a pretty serious issue, with pretty serious consequences. Able-bodied privilege does, however, certainly exist for trans people… and as noted earlier, the intersection of ableism and cissexism can produce unique oppressions. Ableism is also a very serious problem extant within the trans community as a whole.

But while able-bodied privilege and male privilege operate differently in trans context, they absolutely still operate, and trans men and able-bodied trans people have a lot less shit to worry about than trans women and trans people with disabilities. However I feel there are many cases in trans context where a perceived privilege is not actually functioning as a privilege, and that these “dummy” or “decoy” privileges end up actually being used as an extremely destructive means of further marginalization.

(I’m using the terms dummy and decoy because if I started talking about “fake privilege”, it would be all of five fucking seconds before some privileged asshole started using that concept to deny the fact that they’re benefitting from a very real privilege, and derail someone’s effort to discuss it. This way, with these terms, I feel it might take at least a solid twenty minutes before that happens.)

Something that has troubled me a lot lately about The Trans Community and most of its more centralized space has been a tendency I’ve observed for most dominant members of those communities and spaces to claim such a decoy while excluding, marginalizing and mistreating other trans people, sometimes in ways with serious consequences like barring someone from access to needed resources, and using the decoy privilege to justify that exclusion. The claim runs that the people they’re excluding are, in fact, the privileged trans people. The ones who “have it easy”. Common targets for this form of exclusion are trans youth, trans women perceived by others to be “passable”, straight trans women and femme trans women.

An older example of this tactic that was very common until relatively recently was trans men leveraging the accusation of privilege towards trans women. This would be based in arguments that trans women at least had representation, that trans women were the ones that got on TV and stuff, while no one even noticed trans men existed. This argument would be maintained even after a space had come to be wholly dominated by trans men, and the rationale would conveniently ignore the massively disproportionate harassment, ridicule, violence, sexualization, objectification and policing directed towards trans women, focusing exclusively on the questions of visibility and representation.

This latter issue, focusing on an extremely narrow range of questions, even visibility and representation specifically, in order to mark out a given group as “privileged” or “having it easy” while ignoring clear evidence of their oppression, marginalization or vulnerability, is startlingly consistent even in the forms of internal marginalization we’re continuing to see in trans space today (and amongst trans women, certainly).

There’ve been a number of kinda bitter articles circulating lately in response to the rising  media visibility of trans youth (and pre-adolescent trans kids, in particular). A recurrent element of these articles, written almost entirely by older trans women, is a perception that these youth won’t suffer at all, that they’ll get to live more less wholly normative lives within their identified gender. After all, trans girls won’t be subjected to physical masculinization, so they’ll be totally, completely “passable” and no one need ever know that they were ever trans. So, the claim goes, these kids aren’t really trans at all, since they’ll never know the experiences of suffering and oppression that have defined our lives.

Except no. That’s not true at all. Someone who begins medical intervention in early adolescence is still going to have the experience of a medically different body, is still going to have to go through the hassles and humiliation of doctors and gatekeeping and for the rest of her life will have to deal with all the same issues of awkwardly filling out their cis-centric paperwork and explaining to them how her body works and how to deal with it. She’s still going to have to spend the rest of her life dealing with all the legal and bureaucratic and procedural bullshit, and all the same additional consequences should she be incarcerated or run through the punitive “justice” system. She’s still going to have to spend the rest of her life navigating the complex issues of disclosure around sexuality, with the same doubts and fears and vulnerability and risks hovering over her head every time she meets someone interested in her. If she discloses, or is outed, she faces all the same potential consequences, all the same kinds of dangers and risks, that the rest of us do. She will still be living a trans life.

And where this gets especially jarring, and dark, is when one takes a look at the actual realities of trans youth. The statistics are grim and harrowing, with trans youth at staggering risks of homelessness, unemployment, violence, addiction, rape and sexual assault, harassment, discrimination, survival sex work, and HIV.

But none of this matters to the constructed narrative of the easy, happy, privileged life of trans youth. Because passability, visibility and representation, are ALL that matters. The assumption going that the ONLY axis along which trans people are discriminated against is the issue of street harassment, of being visibly identified as trans and penalized for that. But it is, paradoxically, an indication of extreme privilege on your part if your concept of trans-misogyny and cissexism, and what they entail, is limited to the issues like being called “sir” at your local Starbuck’s, and you operate within a mentality that being spared from being read as trans by strangers would equate to being spared from oppression entirely. To believe that the only avenue of trans oppression is being read as trans by a stranger is indicative that you’ve had very few experiences of all its other avenues.

Adding to this is simple idealization; a basic, cheap, grass-is-greener perception. The trans people marking out other’s have never lived their experiences of being trans, only their own, and in the absence of meaningful dialogue, they can therefore project whatever experiences they want onto that other person. If that other person has one thing you wish you had, or regret not having had a chance to have, like “passability” or youth-as-your-own-gender, it’s very easy to project all your own idealized assumptions about how great your life might have been or would have been or should have been onto them, and simply ignore any of the actualities of their experiences, or even the possibility that other factors may have been there. The thing you regret not having becomes the only thing that matters, and every other possibility of experienced gets subsumed within it. Like “How could you have had abusive parents? They let you transition, didn’t they?”, in which the regret that their parents didn’t “let” them transition nullifies consideration of every single other aspect of parenting.

In the mean time, the actual fact that older transitioners (and, outside of the context of trans men-dominated space: particularly white, middle-class trans women who sought intervention at older ages and previously lived/identified as straight men) are the privileged and dominant group relative to trans youth within centralized trans space and our community as a whole, with the most resources and power to throw around, and less other shit to worry about, allows them to dictate the terms of the discourse (away from other considerations), dominate the conversation (and erase the voice of trans youth and their capacity to set the record straight), and to dictate the priorities of trans activism and advocacy, towards their own concerns, like visibility and representation and media and insurance coverage at jobs and rights legislation and what Imogen Binnie perfectly calls The Theatre of Inclusion (like making sure everyone says “trans*” instead of trans, instead of actually doing shit to make spaces more accessible and welcoming), and away from issues like homelessness, shelter access, sex work, trans-friendly/educated addiction resources, HIV amongst trans people, universal medical coverage and access, trans-friendly/educated resources for rape survivors, and trans-oriented sexual health education.

While this process unfolds, however, older trans women continue to define themselves as less privileged.

This phenomena repeats in a very, very similar pattern within the construct of “passing privilege”, wherein again the issue of harassment and visibility is treated as the sole means by which trans people are marginalized and oppressed, and thereby someone perceived by other trans people as having the mythical, fleeting, mercurial quality of “passability” is immediately assumed to live a life benefitting from the entirety of cis privilege, with no problems to speak of.

(I accept that conditional cis privilege is a useful term and concept, but this is a very meaningfully different framework from the destructive, bullshit concept of “passing privilege”. It is, for instance, NOT a privilege in and of itself. What it is is that you are, in certain contexts and situations, read as cis, and therefore granted a few conditional aspects of cis privilege, which are temporary, highly contextual, and may be revoked at any time if the situation or context or conditions change in anyway. It is not an aspect of the person, but an aspect of how they are, occasionally, treated)

Over and over and over and over again, I have seen young trans women, “passable” or normatively-attractive trans women, femme trans women and trans women who lived or identified as queer while they were presenting as men, be hounded out of trans spaces; by being repeatedly, frequently talked over, by being sexually harassed or solicited by chasers, by having their problems or experiences or histories or concerns dismissed or invalidated, by being sexually assaulted by other trans women who assume that “we’re all girls here!” means there’s no such thing as physical boundaries between women and that consent is no longer required before touching intimate parts of a woman’s body, by being treated with overt resentment and jealousy, by being consistently told they have it easy and have no right to complain, by constantly being judged on the basis of their appearance… all while being told that they’re somehow the privileged, dominant group. Because “passing privilege”. Because “femininity” (I guess they never read up on femmephobia, or ever bothered taking a single look at how femininity in CAMAB people is treated in our culture). Because “straight privilege” (our culture does not perceive trans anyone as straight, and no trans anyone ever has the luxury of navigating their sexuality all easy-and-default-and-normative, with no fear of repercussions or consequences or risks or legality. Trans is queer by default, no matter who you like to fuck, because whether or not you see yourself as straight, or your friends see you as such, cis-het-patriarchy don’t). Because it’s so GREAT and ENVIABLE to have your womanhood validated by straight men’s demeaning cat-calls. Because, in some fucking alternate world I’ve never had the luxury of visiting, being deemed sexually attractive by the standards of our culture means no longer being subject to body-policing (seriously… in what fucking world?!?). Etc.

Visibility and representation are not the sole issues in cissexism, transphobia, cisnormativity and trans-misogyny. That’s just one avenue produced by a specific unique intersection of marginalization and privilege… a marginalization that happens to target those most privileged to dominate the discourse, and ignore the other experiences of oppression by trans people at different intersections… intersections leaving them, less able to assert themselves, less able to assert their experiences, and less able to assert their needs.

Cis-het-patriarchy isn’t, independently, picking the kind of trans people it thinks are okay. At least not yet. It still thinks we’re all pretty gross. Our heirarchies are being primarily produced internally, intertwined with all the OTHER kyrarchies (of gender, of race, of class, of ability…) that we’ve brought along with us, failing to unpack at the door, and all the echoes of old privileges we’re unable to give up, still feeling entitled, still feeling what we have to say is extremely incredibly ultra super important and everyone else owes us their attention and respect, regardless of their own needs. The result is our Trans Community, self-selecting the incredibly narrow range of trans people we’re positioning to be our leaders and representatives… the narrow range of trans people dictating our priorities and discourse.

And one of the ways we keep doing this is by claiming some of the most vulnerable and marginalized amongst us already have it easy, and don’t need the benefit of a voice. And so they’re never able to correct our mistake.

I’m putting up my last post to Freethought Blogs on Friday! To be kept up to date on where I’ll be going next, please follow my twitter, @nataliereed84. If you’d like to help me land on my feet, cover my medicine until I get my insurance coverage reinstated, save up for SRS, and invest in future projects, please donate to my Tip Jar!

Comments

  1. says

    Hope you don’t mind I keep commenting — all the other blogs I used to visit seem to be dead.

    You made a lot of really good points here. I wonder if the notion of “trans community” itself needs to be interrogated. I think there are pockets of trans communities and areas where there are trans people (but not necessarily a trans community as such) but no encompassing Trans Community — which seems to be largely fictive. Even picturing the Internet as a Trans Community seems hasty considering both A) the distance of trans people in physical space that often still remains (and while I don’t think Internet contact is trivial, I think this distance is still relevant) and B) the privileges involved in who gets to access the Internet and participate in these discussions.

    I think when such a Trans Community is posited there is a risk of falling into the same problems that feminism often did/does in positing a monofocal “women’s community” that only had certain women in mind. Then situations occur where people claim “The Trans Community needs x!” in a way that often ignores the way in which trans youth, especially trans youth of color are often ignored by such monolithic, monofocal positings (as well as trans people who experience other intersectional oppressions).

    And then there is the assumption that silence is ALWAYS bad, without interrogating what kinds of visibility people receive and how silence itself can be an act of survival and even of resistance (i.e. not speaking on someone else’s terms).

    Thanks for posting again.

  2. swar says

    I thought this was well-written and informative. Then again, I’m a white hetero cis-male, so I probalby just misunderstood it or something.

  3. Rebecca Williams says

    I’m really sorry to hear about that guy in McDonalds, it sounds like quite a scary experience. Interestingly, a young self identified trans girl recently came to a trans forum saying she wanted to help someone who was introducing herself and where she was in her medical transition. Here’s what she said (she’s French):

    “34 years old …??sorry dear it’s too late for the hips the voice & the hand the feet & the shoulders …..most of transgender prefer to look ugly in pseudo woman …?? Than awesome in guy …. Don’t waste ur money or ur time everyone ….if u don’t start Hrt before puberty no secret all ur life u will feel bad in ur body & in ur mind …most of old trans kill them or mutilate or finish in a psychiatrist hospital ….”

    I’m not here creating divisions because I entirely agree with you, but find this an interesting twist. Is this what people are really afraid of?

    • says

      It’s an extreme example, but yeah, the obsession with “passability” really does run that deep, and very often with that level of neurosis and level of complete oblivious ignorance of the harm their bitterness is doing to others.

  4. April M says

    Wow Natalie , This essay really shook my perspective on how I was going about the creation of a Trans community , and served as an indictment of a crime I have been guilty of since I can remember identifying myself to the world as a trans-woman. I believe that if there isn’t a trans community it’s necessary to invent one; Simply put individuals that come together around shared identities and experiences tend to or have a better chance of making significant strides in minimizing their oppression, or at least theoretically! I use the example of the African-American civil rights movement here to back up my unsophisticated argument for a Trans-community.:) As for my guilt I have been that embittered , older trans-woman. I can’t say that I have the money or professional position that many older trans-woman have, the intersection of my oppressions differ considerably. But I have still committed the crime of believing the myth of passing privilege as an absolute privilege that somehow granted my trans sisters and brothers a reprieve from the oppression’s I faced as a “legitimate ” suffering trans-woman who didn’t pass. It never occurred to me that this belief made my desire for trans-community a ludicrous contradiction . How could I on one hand believe in a community , and on the other hand exclude a significant amount of members , their voices, their needs ,out of what amounted to a neurotic jealousy? Natalie I want to thank you for inducing this insight: members of a community can have divergent types of oppression and privileges based on their place on various ‘intersections, but still have a legitimate place in the community. Every history , experience, and need must be respected and considered. Thank you for giving me a chance to see what harm I was doing to building a trans-community. Most of all thanks for giving me a slap in the face; I don’t want to be that embittered woman. Okay enough of this epistle. I can’t leave without telling you though that what happened to you at Mcdonalds was inexcusable . I too have been sexually assaulted, and in that assault was a plethora of isms that in the end resulted in some man believing that he could justifiably force himself on me. My heart goes out to you. To the day when more woman and men never have to say they are survivors of sexual assault.

  5. Kathrine says

    Just incredible writing.

    I’ve tried explaining intersectionality before, and I always fail unless I’m with fellow graduate students. Trying to explain it to undergraduates, or just people I often run into, usually ends in failure, if not outright hostility.

    I’ve been passing your link around to other academics. You should definitely keep writing.

  6. says

    Excellent article again, so glad to find at least someone exposing these issue. On a side note I have to put that you wrote “as a McDonald” instead of “a a McDonald”, I’ll assume you’ll correct the typo then feel free to remove my comment here <;^)

  7. M says

    Natalie, once again you’re spot on. I’ve seen people do that, letting their jealousy of a single aspect of someone else’s life run rampant.

    This sort of reminds me of the way some gays and lesbians treat bisexuals. They assume we’re just half-assed gays/lesbians and that we have all this straight privilege. But the truth is, bisexuals have by far the worst statistics on mental health, suicide rates and partner violence (by sexual orientation). So, no, we’re not privileged as compared to gays and lesbians, quite the contrary. We do not have straight privilege (because we’re not). However we do occasionally enjoy what might be termed passing privilege or conditional straight privilege, but this is an incredibly small part of straight privilege, so the grass is not all that green and our specific issues should not be dismissed.

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