When You're Transgender, You Realize What Gender Privilege Looks Like

I've lived as both a dude and a girl—and I know which I prefer.

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Feb 9 2015, 5:00am

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski

There's a lot of talk about privilege these days, mainly by folks who don't have much of it, asking the people who do to share. Or, you know, at least acknowledge that they have some. "Check your privilege," as the saying goes. Ha! Good luck with that. Privilege is like bad breath: You don't always notice it if you have it, but it stinks to other people.

But what is privilege, exactly? We're basically talking about any sort of advantage you enjoy that other people don't. Like having money, and not having to worry about having enough food to eat or a shelter over your head. That's a privilege. Or how white people get to walk down the street without getting shot. Or how straight couples get to walk around hand in hand and kiss out and about—even if they're fucking hideous—while gay couples often feel unsafe to express any affection in public. Apart from in San Francisco. The gays run San Francisco.

I know you like to feel all sorry for yourself, but everyone has some privilege—even if you don't even know about it. Privilege is funny like that. I should know. I'm a transgender woman, i.e., I used to be a dude. A really girly dude who got picked on for being a really girly dude, but a dude nonetheless (or at least, I presented that way). Now I'm a hot bitch, inside and out, and I'm going to tell you everything I know about the many different types of gender privilege I've enjoyed over the years. Let's break it down.

BOY PRIVILEGE

I need to preface this by saying that back when I presented as a boy, I didn't think I had any privilege. Nada. If you'd asked me if I enjoyed any special treatment simply by being a boy, I'd have said, "Hell no, honey." But I was girly, remember? Skinny white "boy" me, who often felt unsafe walking around because I was so feminine, and who presented as a homosexual. So no. I didn't feel privileged.

Among men there is a hierarchy, with rich, strong white men at the top, and everyone else underneath. It's called intersectionality. Look it up. What that means is that black men, for example, don't enjoy the same privileges as white men. And gay men are not as privileged as straight men. And black gay men are not as privileged as white gay men, although they definitely dance better. Sorry. They do.

The author (middle) with some privileged dudes

YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU'VE GOT TILL IT'S GONE

Well, what do you know? It turns out that I did, in fact, lose some privilege when I transitioned. Even as a lowly young "gay boy," in certain situations people did respect me a bit more than they do now.

The first time I noticed it was when I was out with my then boyfriend and we stopped at a pub to ask the barman for directions. The fucker looked my partner in the eye and replied to him instead of me—despite the fact that I, me, myself, had asked the question. He was treating me the same as any other woman—which is to say, shittily.

He may have been the first, but he certainly wasn't the last. Another time, I was buying a new phone with my then boyfriend, and the shop assistant just starting babbling on about all these technical details of the phone to my boyfriend, even though the phone was for me and I was paying. Needless to say, I didn't buy a phone in that store.

When I was presenting as a man, I hadn't realized how rude, loud, and generally obnoxious men can be ("not all men!" obviously, but still). They talk over women in work meetings, family dinners, and, well, everywhere. If you're one woman among a group of men, good luck with getting your voice heard. I've even seen one man dominate a group of women before, too. The dickhead.

It may not sound like much, but while women are still paid less for doing the same jobs as men, having someone talk over you in work contexts is not only fucking rude, it contributes to wider inequality that keeps men in the lap of privilege. Being a man means you have privilege, because people will pipe down and listen to what you have to say.

PASSING PRIVILEGE

There's more to my story than just "male privilege" and "female privilege," of course. I'm incredibly lucky because I have (knock on wood) what's known as passing privilege. Basically, people don't tend to read me as trans—they just see me as a woman. It wasn't always this way. When I first transitioned, sometimes people would pick up on the fact that I was transgender and shout abuse at me. It was horrible. I don't get that much anymore. That's a privilege. The privilege to walk down the goddamn street without people being assholes, or at least not be assholes about that particular point. Passing privilege is similar to the privilege that cisgender people—that is, people who are not trans—enjoy, apart from one important distinction: It is conditional. It depends on conforming to a societal standard of gender presentation. It can be taken away. Essentially, passing privilege is a case of, "If you look a certain way, you don't have to deal with all the bullshit that we hand out to other transgender people." It stinks. Passing may afford many privileges, but it is not a true freedom.

It's worth noting that the idea of "passing" at all is somewhat convoluted. Janet Mock, a trans woman, author, presenter, and one of the most exciting voices to emerge in feminism in recent years, objects to the term passing because, as she puts it, "I'm not passing, I'm being... I'm being myself." And that's a good point. I look forward to the day when the idea of passing isn't something we bother to think about.

GIRLS' DISCOUNT

There are some benefits to being a girl—if you are young and pretty. Free fries. Cases carried. Doors opened for you. All that old-fashioned sexist stuff that we're not supposed to like but that, if I'm honest, I did really enjoy at first, before I started making my own dollar.

Then it all just started to feel a bit patronizing. There's something very annoying about getting away with not buying a ticket on public transportation, or cab drivers letting you off a few cents, or guys in bars giving you two shots for the price of one—these acts assume that, as a woman, you're not capable of paying for or lifting or doing the damn thing yourself. But it's also kind of fun, frankly. I call it "girls' discount."

Still, I can't help feeling that women have been a bit shortchanged when it comes to this whole privilege malarkey. Like, men are way less likely to get raped. I don't know, I just kind of feel like that's a better privilege than getting doors held open for you.

SOME DEEP STUFF

Women often get the short end of the privilege stick, but there are tradeoffs. People trust me more now. As a woman, you get to smile at children in public without their parents assuming you're a pedophile. Back when I was a young boy who wore baseball caps and hoodies, security guards were constantly on my case—a frequent complaint I hear from young black men too. I've never been accused of shoplifting since I transitioned (even when I have been blatantly shoplifting), so that's rather nice.

Women are taught to feel scared of the world, but I actually feel safer as a girl. As a guy, other men can be aggressive in public—it's a sign of masculinity. But if you don't have heterosexual privilege, if you seem like a gay boy like I did, then you're likelier to get bashed into. As a feminine woman, I have more privilege than I did as a feminine man. I can't remember the last time anyone made me feel threatened in public. I'd rather someone patronize me by holding a door open than have some dickhead pick a fight with me.

INVISIBLE STUFF

The scary part about privilege is that, when it comes to some of the biggest privileges, we can't even see what's happening. How do I know if I've ever been turned down for a job just because I'm a woman? How do I know if people would take my writing more seriously if I were a dude? Much privilege is systemic and invisible. But that doesn't mean it's not there.

So there you go. That's all I know. I wish I had some juicier tale to tell you about some guy getting promoted over me at work, but the truth is I'm a highly successful woman, despite all of the guys trying to talk over me, patronize me, and make a big deal out of what I'm wearing. On the plus side, I get to wear my heart on my sleeve, and my sleeve of choice, or no sleeve, or whatever. And don't forget girl's discount. And tits. I forgot to mention tits. I know tits can be a pain sometimes, but they truly are awesome, ladies. Take it from someone who took a bit longer to grow a nice rack. Tit privilege is definitely a thing.

Follow Paris Lees on Twitter.

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