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What Trans Women Have Is Far More Complicated Than ‘Male Privilege’

Unsplash/Denys Argyriou

We must be accurate in our understanding of how privilege is given and received.

B y now you’ve probably read all about the comments Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie made in her Channel 4 interview — the ones where she said trans women have experienced “the privileges that the world accords to men” and was unable to call us women without qualification. Or you’ve read the more recent posts in which she doubled and tripled down on those statements. If you haven’t, take a minute to scan through, because they’re the basis of a journey we’re going to embark on together.

Back? I know, right? Wild.

In the days that followed the initial interview, it seemed like nearly the entire trans community pushed back as one against Adichie’s assertions; Laverne Cox told Twitter that she had been “bullied and shamed” for her feminine behavior as a child, Aaryn Lang started the sarcastic hashtag (sarcashtag?) #MalePrivilegeDiaries to document the violence transfeminine people experienced pre-transition, and countless think pieces remarked on how Adichie had seemingly abandoned her well-known maxim against only listening to a single story.

But there were problems on both sides of the argument. Mainstream (read: cisnormative) media outlets that covered the controversy made the mistake of fundamentally misunderstanding what was being debated in the first place; among others, the Washington Post claimed Adichie got flack for saying cis and trans women’s issues are different, a statement which no trans woman alive would contest. I’ve said it myself multiple times. What many transfeminine people reject is the notion that they have male privilege or were “socialized male.”

Mainstream media outlets made the mistake of fundamentally misunderstanding what was being debated in the first place. Click To Tweet

By engaging in this debate at all, trans folks need to take a side on an issue that doesn’t really line up with our experiences in a way that makes sense across the board. Trans author Imogen Binnie wrote on Twitter that “male privilege is a term invented by cis people” which “does not map neatly onto trans experiences.” When we as trans people engage with others using language coined to define fundamentally cisgender-centric power structures, are we really having an honest discussion about our experiences? Or are we just muddying the waters?

I suspect it’s the latter — for one thing, because although I heard plenty from people like Cox and trans writer/historian Morgan Page in the wake of Adichie’s interview, I heard next to nothing about trans people who had more complicated histories with privilege. Cox and Page have different backgrounds, but both were recognizably queer from a young age, to themselves and others; this impacted their lives by exposing them to systematic verbal and physical abuse specifically because of their gender expression. Not every experience echoes this exactly.

Since Adichie, Cox, Page, and I all agree that telling one single story can’t possibly capture the depth of real lived experiences, I want to share some of my own — and bring shades of grey into a discussion that is too often made black and white.

In high school, I worked as a member of the Foreign Exchange club. We put on events like dances and roller-skating parties in order to raise money for each member to spend a summer in another country. I worked for three years to raise two-thirds of the cost of my trip to Germany — but at the last second, I was granted a massive scholarship that paid my way instead. I got the best of both worlds, and though my essay was pretty good for a 16-year-old, I’d be a fool not to suspect that being read as male played a part in why I was chosen.

Years afterward, I obtained an internship at a small publishing company. There, I was one of two (largely unpaid) interns, the other being The Establishment’s own Alex DiFrancesco, who was still presenting as female. While the publisher made sure to lavish me with cool projects, several business lunches, and a connection at Publishers Weekly, he gave Alex little (if any) of the same treatment. Much later, Alex and I would reunite, discover that we were both trans, and share a good laugh — but at the time the disparity in treatment was blatant and uncomfortable.

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I never want to dismiss how my life has been shaped by these events, because to pretend that I haven’t been extended certain benefits in life due to my apparent status as a white male strikes me as dishonest. But like Binnie, I stop short at calling this “privilege.” As is commonly used in feminist vernacular, “privilege” refers to unearned advantages — things that one doesn’t pay for, but acquires through circumstance. What cis feminists call trans women’s “male privilege,” I would instead characterize as “fringe benefits,” because make no mistake: I paid for them.

There were signs I wasn’t really keen on being a boy as far back as kindergarten, when a couple of the neighbors’ kids coaxed me into trying on a frilly black princess dress at their house and then laughed hysterically. I remember being enchanted with how it felt to move and be present in that dress, but I also internalized a deep sense of wrongness in that moment: This was not something that was meant for me. This was a secret shame.

What cis feminists call trans women’s ‘male privilege,’ I would instead characterize as ‘fringe benefits,’ because make no mistake: I paid for them. Click To Tweet

I dutifully repressed everything about that incident for around two decades. But though my brain tried to forget it, the idea that there was an aspect of me that was broken, bizarre, disgusting — that stayed with me, and still does. It’s fed my struggles with anxiety and depression, and the unhealthily dependent side of my aspirational relationship with porn. It’s the reason I got so good at play-acting as a cis man; I wasn’t effeminate because my subconscious mind worked overtime to make sure of it.

At my core, there’s a deeply held belief that my relationship with gender makes me a fucked-up person. When you understand that, you’ll see that my transition isn’t just a physical one: It’s the process of unlearning toxic ideas I absorbed from cisnormative culture and drummed into myself over 20-odd years. I had to trade a significant chunk of my mental health to get the fringe benefits of “male privilege” — which is why that concept is fundamentally flawed with regards to trans identity.

Was it really a privilege to grow up that way? Would any cis women like to switch seats?

All this isn’t to say trans women have it worse than cis women, or that the idea of privilege is universally garbage. It’s actually vastly important to fully understand intersectionality; I’m unequivocally the beneficiary of white and able-bodied privilege, and those are systems I need to help dismantle. But the key word is “fully.” We need to be accurate in our understanding of how privilege is given and received.

Even those of us who spend years in relative comfort with our gender are socialized in a vastly more complex way than Adichie posits. When she says that we are “treated as male by the world,” that’s partly true, but ignores the other ways trans people are treated in Western society: as mentally disturbed fetish objects Hollywood can mine for cheap material. Small wonder I was never able to get rid of that sense of wrongness; it was always being reinforced by the world around me. This comic by Sophie Labelle illustrates (heh) the problem with movies like, say, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, or The Hangover 2, or any number of other movies where the idea of transness is played for shock and/or laughs. Whether you know you’re trans or not, society has many ways of making sure you know the consequences of straying outside your prescribed gender.

The same hand that extends an invitation into a “man’s world” also shoves these ideas down our throats, so that our sense of identity and self-worth is chiseled away. When we talk about “male privilege,” that’s what we’re really referring to: the demonic barter millions of people have had to make in order to stay alive in a culture that, unconsciously or not, wants them dead or silent.

But we refuse to be either.

So pull up a chair and listen, cis feminists, because there are so many other stories that you still need to hear.