I was chatting with a cis friend of mine who is an amazingly supportive and empathic ally, and made a comment about some extremists in the world who accuse trans women of retaining male privilege or of being patriarchy double-agents, and she was dumbfounded by the idea, having seen some of the shit I endure. She made an off-hand comment about “well, maybe before you transitioned, but now, really no,” and I had to stop and really think about that for a minute before we continued. Yes, on the one hand my life was easier in some ways, but in a lot of other ways it was a lot more emotionally violent, and ultimately the best way I could explain it to her was something akin to passing privilege, like when a gay man is assumed to be straight and doesn’t have to take as much crap, or when some racial minorities look “white enough” that they world just assumes they’re in the majority. There is some benefit to being mistaken for a member of the oppressor class, but those benefits are highly conditional and quickly taken away if your minority status is revealed, and often there is some kind of punishment inflicted for “deceiving” everyone. And perhaps worst of all, you can hear exactly what people in power think of people like you when they think they’re alone, and either sacrifice your illusory privilege (or even your physical safety) speaking up against it, or else sit there are take deeply disturbing abuse without being allowed to react.
Did I gain any benefit from people mistaking me for a boy? Probably. I probably got called on more in class, and got harassed less on the street. But my butch lesbian friends got similar treatment for rejecting femininity. And in the meantime I was still told nearly every day that girls need to be quiet, that girls aren’t good at math, that girls should dress and speak and act certain ways. I was told that if a girl gets raped, it’s because of how she was dressed or because she wasn’t careful enough. And I hated myself because I wasn’t little enough and pretty enough. And I worried I wasn’t really a girl because I liked science. And when I got raped, I “knew” it was because of how I’d dressed, and because I wasn’t careful enough. Trans girls have to grow up in the same crappy, woman-hating world every other girl grows up in.
No one calls out gay people for “residual straight privilege,” so on what bizzaro-world did we turn over a rock and find a concept that essentially boils down to “a hated and violently abused minority of women are the real danger to women, because they were forced to hide in fear of violent reprisal for years”?
For trans women the ability to pass as cis men before transition is a means of survival in which whatever privilege afforded us is a veil borrowed out of fear.
The violence done to all womankind is violence that is done to us as well. Our privilege is merely the ability to stand in an indirect line of fire, not out of it.
And honestly not all of us (not many even) even were able to do that?
I was so consistently attacked and abused and no one could articulate what it was they hated about me but my mannerisms, my voice, my movements, all of those things triggered intense fury in cis men (and boosted the bravery of less common exploitative cis women in violating my physical boundaries in much subtler ways).
Sometimes sexualized fury (the hazing and bullying took on sexual undertones at times and the words faggot and bitch were a constant attack)
For a while I believed that I had “passed as cis male” in my youth only to find out that I was the only one out of the people around me in my youth who believed that. And talking to other trans girls who knew of their past experiences better and without influences from cis bullying in the present muddying the water helped too.
No one was surprised. Everyone said they “knew something was up” with me. And they knew it wasn’t being gay or anything like that. They knew. I mean many of them still articulated it in sexuality terms but it was always a special kind of weird gay. A gayness not even acceptable to the cis gay people I knew, who acted like it was odd the way I was as well.
And mind you I am autistic and mentally ill and those things will change behaviors and make a kid “weird” to their peers. But it was very specifically a weirdness of gender.
My brother knew. My dad responded abusively to it. My mother knew something was up and was bothered by it. My peers knew and either treated me like scum to break or avoided me to avoid being associated with that (most of my friends were outcasts for whatever reasons). People would stare at me on the street.
I won’t say it applies to everyone, I’m not going to take agency away from other trans girls in describing their own lives. But I know that I was fooled and bullied into claiming first that I had male privilege and then later that I was passing as male privileged before transition and both proved to be untrue and the result of a transmisogynist ideology designed to ostracize and attack us, on the level of existence itself.
I think that’s a big deal. I think a lot more of us experienced this phenomenon than we realized.
What you described is exactly what I’m talking about when I talk about “illusory” privilege. So long as we can maintain the illusion that we belong in the majority—an emotionally exhausting task that can inflict a lot of damage over time—then we gain some of the benefits. But if we fail at that, if our status as a member of a minority is revealed or even suspected, then privilege is revoked and replaced with isolation, mental abuse, and physical violence.
Some trans women are better than others at pretending. I was pretty bad at it as well, and took a lot of abuse from peers and even some teachers for being “feminine.”What little benefit I gained form the male illusion came from authority figures who didn’t know squat about me beyond a name on a clipboard, and even that vanished when my identity came out. Suddenly, even without presenting as female at school, I went from “being bullied” to “starting fights,” and went from “star pupil” to “troublemaker.” The principal, a woman who didn’t know or care about a single student on campus, pull me aside and inform me that any trouble form me at prom would get me suspended.
In sixth grade, I was physically attacked every day for being weak and “girly”. They knew. Before I had told anyone, they knew. And when I tried to get help from the school and my parents about it, I was simply told it was my fault for “not being a man”.
If that’s “privilege”, then I guess I don’t know what the word means anymore.