Nothing to Lose: Trans Women and Male Privilege

NOTE: This post mentions child abuse and transmisogyny.

The following is based on a comment I left on Trinity Pixie’s article, On the Loss of False Male Privilege. (It’s a great piece, by the way, you should read it first!) Also check out Tobi Hill-Meyer’s thoughts on this topic.

There are many different ways male privilege can play a part (or not play a part) in the lives of trans women; I personally find it impossible to use a generalizing “we” when making statements about it. Some trans women have been able to express themselves since as young as four years old, and it’s hard to argue they’ve received any male privilege whatsoever.

Then there are many who experience partial “external-only” privilege, meaning they are treated differently by others, but being women, do not internalize cultural messages directed at men. That privilege has along with it the extreme pain of not being able to live openly. The only way a trans woman can hold on to that external privilege is to put on an act. It can be painful and isolating. The act can drive some to suicide. In that sense it’s more of a cage than a privilege. One may gain benefits in a few cases, but take massive hits elsewhere. It’s generally acknowledged that even cis men are damaged by male privilege, but that is nothing compared to the experience many trans women face when forced to pretend they’re boys for survival. While men take a slight hit from the expectations of maleness but still come out with a net positive, the forecast isn’t so bright for many trans women. (Probably on account of, you know, not being men.)

There are also trans women who change the gender they identify as, meaning they completely identified with maleness at one point but no longer do, and their experience with male privilege is different as well.

My treatment post-transition wasn’t a surprising adventure into new territory, it was a nightmare once confined to memory that spread to the rest of my life in the present.

There can be other complicating factors. My own history is one of objectification and sexual abuse, prior to transition, where my femaleness came out in ways that my abusers used to justify what they did. I didn’t even know the terminology for “trans” yet, but it was obvious I wasn’t a “normal boy”, and that was used against me to justify being sexualized and taken advantage of. I knew on some intuitive level that they were abusing me because of my gender, and I knew I wasn’t actually a boy, so I didn’t experience any of it through the lens of maleness or masculinity. I was being abused because I was a girl. While also being told I was “crazy” and a fraud for being a girl.

That experience has haunted me ever since. I have not experienced a lot of the things others attribute to “male socialization”, even when it comes to the “external-only” variety. I was always on defense, always hiding my body to avoid being sexualized. After the abuse I went out of my way to force-masculinize myself, I experienced it as butching it up to protect myself, hiding my gender, and that strategy worked. I was consciously wearing a disguise.

Treatment by others did change after I transitioned. But I wouldn’t describe it as “losing male privilege”, or even “false male privilege”. I was transitioning back to something I had previously been. I already knew I was female and that it made me a target, I already believed my opinions were worthless, the only difference was that the things I worried about started happening regularly again. It wasn’t a surprising adventure into new territory, it was a nightmare once confined to memories of abuse that spread into the rest of my life in the present.

Most of us have histories that don’t fit neatly into the models of privilege that fill the mainstream dialog. I’m glad we can continue to have more and more nuanced discussions on how privilege or lack thereof affects us as individuals, instead of treating privilege as a simple on/off switch. The reality is a lot more complicated, and a lot more insightful.